August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy: "… who fell down, and got up."

Ted Kennedy: "… who fell down, and got up."


A contemporary church song caught Ted Kennedy almost too well. The words go: “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. For a saint… is just a sinner… who fell down, and got up.”

The son of a gun kept getting up. The baby among the Kennedy brothers got the only long lifetime in politics. He suffered unspeakable losses and contributed blunders of his own — cheating in college, toying with the life of Mary Jo Kopechne. Just imagine any of this happening to you or me: oldest brother dead in a war plane; his two political partner brothers shot by assassins; himself nearly killed and never again out of a back brace and awful pain after a plane crash 45 years ago. I happened to be standing (on newspaper duty) near Ted Kennedy, next to Richard Nixon, at Senator Allen Ellender’s burial in Louisiana in 1972 when the last salute burst forth in a crackle of rifle fire. Kennedy, in uncontrollable panic, collapsed on the ground. And then, alone in his embarrassment and recovery, he picked himself up.

He didn’t just keep getting up. He got better at the many complicated jobs he had: Senator, surrogate father, custodian of a legend, a sort of Napoleonic general of liberal values in America. He got humbler, and tougher. He got surer and more visionary all the way. It thrills you now to know that he judged his stand against authorizing the Bush war in Iraq “the best vote I’ve made”– 40 years into his job, only seven years ago.

As kids we were tickled when Eddie McCormack told him to his face in 1962 that “if your name were Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke.” Ted’s first premise in politics was obnoxious. The slogan in 1962 was: “He can do more for Massachusetts,” because his brother was president of the United States. Eddie McCormack was right. But the Democratic voters of Massachusetts made the wise choice. Kennedy himself liked to quote a mill-worker in Boston who told him on a factory visit in that first campaign: “They say you never worked a real job in your life? Let me tell you something: you haven’t missed a damned thing!” And then Ted buckled down to nearly five decades of a mission that reset the standard for both professionalism and passion in public life, with far the best personal staff and the best political instincts that anyone can remember in the U. S. Senate.

Let’s remember him as encouraging evidence that redemptive energy — grace beyond individual courage — underlies the life of a man and a country. Ted Kennedy will do as a sort of proof of Hemingway’s line that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated,” as he can also be defeated and not destroyed.

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  • shaman

    A spectacular tribute. Thanks, Chris.

    Teddy was the Kennedy family’s black eye. His faults were more public, his pain more lasting and he was less graceful in some ways than the other Kennedys.

    Yet, for a man of privilege and wealth it is a heroic accomplishment that we should envy his faith, his joy of life, and his strength more than anything else.

  • potter

    It’s hard to get used to the world without him. I am sad today as it sinks in.

    I had the thought that he really did a lot more for this country than his brothers were able to- and I don’t know a fraction of it. Stories are coming out now. Scheer had a good one in the Nation.

    He stood ground as a “liberal”- that word that George Bush Sr. made or tried to make a dirty word. Ted Kennedy did not waver. His positions were not about gaining or keeping power. On election days when his name was on the ballot- there was not ever any hesitation from this voter. We were fortunate in to have him.

    See Jeff Danziger’s had a poignant cartoon.

  • hurley

    I wrote an irreverent but finally respectful note to a friend about TK, saying more or less that for all his oafishness and womanslaughter he’d done more in the past 40 years for the citizens of the US than anyone save Ralph Nader. Yet another betrayal of ignorance, at least in light of this harsh verdict:

    Not to take anything from Chris’s lovely memorial. As he suggests, TK suffered more tragedy than most of us ever will. The final verdict, so to speak, will likely be buried in the absurd fantasy of the Kennedy mystique. Which does him a disservice. Strip him of his name, as Eddie McCormack proposed, and what is left? A lot. RIP.

  • potter

    Cockburn at the end of this complete trashing of Ted Kennedy (nothing good to say): By his crucial endorsement last year he helped give them Obama too, now holidaying six miles from Chappaquiddick, on Martha’s Vineyard, another salesman for the inferno. But because his mishaps were so dramatic, few remember quite how toxic his political “triumphs” were for those who now foolishly mourn him as their lost leader.

    maybe an antidote?

    Via (youtube and Cspan) Kennedy in the Senate on the minimum wage

  • hurley

    Dear Potter, I knew I’d get your Irish up with that link to Cockburn. Welcome to the tribe (the Irish, that is). He raised valid points, in his typically acrid, lyrical fashion. I wish I could argue them, but I can’t. You certainly know more about these things than I. But I suspect there’s something there. I’m suspicious of millionaires who presumably didn’t give even a Mormon tithe railling on about the misfortunes of the rabble, as per your link. I hope I’m wrong.

  • potter

    Dear Hurley- I always wanted to be Irish. Thank you. I also fell for Obama’s eulogy this AM at the Mission Church in Boston ( broadcast amazingly on the front page of the NYTimes online)- had me in tears at the end. There was a lot more to this life in retrospect than Chappaquiddick but I doubt that Cockburn gave it a moments reflection. Of course there is something there- there’s a lot there. The railing on was real and felt. Also I fall for the notion that this is an extraordinary family and certainly not one that had to go into public service or even feel it so deeply as opposed to others from similar backgrounds who managed to gain the highest power and do us a lot more harm. Cockburn in his historical assessment forgets that it’s the odyssey itself ( as Chris intimates) and where Kennedy struggled to arrive. He made no perfect place and no perfect laws.

    Cockburn’s thing is a cynicism which he can’t let go of even for this moment. When something tastes too sour ( and I like sour) I have to avoid it. To add insult to injury- he asked for a donation after that.

  • potter

    Sam Tanenhaus had a worthy article in this Sunday’s New York Times, In Kennedy, the Last Roar of the New Deal Liberal This from it:

    The friction between Mr. Kennedy’s uncertain feel for politics and his instinctive command of governance led to his gravest miscalculation, his ill-executed attempt to unseat his party’s incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in the 1980 primaries.

    “No real difference of politics separated Kennedy from Carter,” Theodore H. White noted when he revisited the episode in 1982.

    Mr. White, curious to grasp the motives behind this quixotic mission, pressed Mr. Kennedy about it. At first Mr. Kennedy haltingly mentioned Mr. Carter’s failed leadership and squandered opportunities. But when prodded further, he delivered “a stunning discussion of just how laws are passed, of how Carter’s amateur lobbyists had messed up program after program by odd legislative couplings of unsorted programs,” Mr. White wrote. “Then, details cascading from him more and more rapidly, he concluded in an outburst of frustration” that Mr. Carter was incompetent. “Even on issues we agree on, he doesn’t know how to do it,” Mr. Kennedy told Mr. White, who likened his attitude to “the contempt of a master machinist for a plumber’s assistant.”

  • potter
  • JNagarya

    A lovely comment, Chris.

    How many of us could have got up, and continued on, with the burdens he carried. Certainly, he, and his family, had sufficient welath that they could have spent their lives on permanent vacation. Instead, Ted did much to improve the lives of even those who hated him — not knowing how much he’d done that benefitted them.

    Ted will be missed. Hopefully Martha Coakley can be his measure.

  • Oh, Camelot… I miss it no matter how fantastical it is. Pres. Kennedy saved us from nuclear war and his brother Teddy did so much to help the poor through Obamacare. Funny that they turned out so well with such a crappy father, who was anti-Semitic and backing the Nazis. Probably good that he was too often out with Gloria Swanson and in Hollywood so that Rose could bring the kids up properly. And no, I don’t care how many women all the Kennedys slept with: it was their service to this country, this sticking their finger in the dike of History that is sweeping us away, that I revere.