By Michael Sigman
When I ran for president of my sixth grade class in the fall of 1959, I was heartbroken that my friend Walter already had the Democratic nomination sewn up. (His campaign even had a slogan: Vote Democratic/It’s Systematic!) I almost couldn’t bear the thought of going against the party of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, my first hero who wasn’t a Yankee–a New York Yankee, that is. (The Kennedys of Massachusetts, of course, fit the dictionary definition of a Yankee: “a native or inhabitant of New England.”)
Over the next three years, my love and admiration for Jack Kennedy only deepened. From his grace and humor at televised press conferences to his policies on civil rights and other issues, he earned his place as one of my all-time favorite adults, right up there with Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Bob Gibson and Curt Flood. (I had proudly abandoned the Yanks and Knicks for the underdog Cincinnati Royals and St. Louis Cardinals, whose static-filled night game broadcasts I had to strain to hear on the portable radio stashed under my pillow.)
When the principal at my Junior High announced JFK’s assassination over the PA in November, 1963 Mr. Mateo, my idiotic social studies teacher, struck precisely the wrong tone, a commitment to the curriculum masked behind a kind of superficial despair. “This is terrible news,” he said without emotion, “but we must go on.” And he did, like President George W. Bush reading a book about goats while New York City burned on 9/11. It wasn’t until I walked into the following class — where the great English teacher Mr. Keith had his head buried in his hands, and stayed in that pose until the bell rang — that the enormity of the tragedy began to sink in.
Ted Kennedy, 1980 Democratic Convention
Five years after JFK’s death, I was a cocky college freshman staying “Clean for Gene” — McCarthy, the low-key darling of the left, who was challenging Hubert “Politics of Joy” Humphrey, LBJ’s Vietnam War-supporting toady, for the right to run against a resurrected Richard Nixon in the 1968 Presidential contest.
When JFK’s hard-charging younger brother Robert — who’d “moved” to New York to capture a Senate seat — hurled himself into the race, I viewed him as a ruthless, opportunistic interloper. But then something astonishing happened: Bobby’s eloquent, passionate pleas for peace, racial justice and concern for the poor and disenfranchised drew huge, adoring crowds in city after city. The refined McCarthy — at best a noble spoiler — fell back; RFK, burning with inspiration and backed by family money and his brother’s first-rate political team, grabbed the country’s attention with a message that could actually beat Humphrey and take on Nixon. For a few amazing weeks, RFK became a hero to me and millions of Americans. You know the rest.
On June 5, 1968, only two months after another towering figure, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in Memphis, RFK was gunned down in L.A. My disbelief and outrage gave way to a far more destructive state: numbness and resignation. What hope could there be, my friends and I wondered, for a society that routinely kills its best public servants?
Strangely, my immediate relief was the grief in the watery eyes and quivering voice of 37-year-old Teddy Kennedy, giving the eulogy for his brother. Here, amidst overwhelming sadness and devastation, was a message not so much of hope — how could he, or we, be hopeful at that moment? — but endurance, and determination.
Ted Kennedy eulogizes his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, June 8, 1968, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City
Endurance and determination proved key to the heroism — hard-won and developed over the decades — of Ted Kennedy.
Some believed he could pick up the Kennedy presidential mantle and run with it. But he was far too young, immature and inexperienced. The truth was that, for the progressive idealism of King and the Kennedys, there was no mantle. (Not even Mickey, who, injured and unable to play at a level acceptable to him, would retire from baseball a few months later.)
To be sure, Ted’s behavior following the deaths of his brothers was reckless, and worse. His attempts to cover up and then play the victim of the tragedy at Chappaquiddick — where he was responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne — were cowardly and disgraceful. And who knows what other destructive behavior may have been successfully covered up in the ensuing years?
But whatever his personal failings, Teddy became a monumental plus for progressive causes over the decades, and in the process revealed an appeal different from the charismatic sophistication of Jack and the white heat of Bobby: the heroism of tireless, day by day plowing ahead to achieve your goals, whatever the obstacles, including those — maybe especially those — that are self-imposed.
Ted Kennedy rages at Republican opposition to a minimum wage increase
‘When does the greed stop? we ask the other side. What is it about it that drives you Republicans crazy? What is it? What is it about working men and women that you find so offensive?’
Ted Kennedy’s vision went beyond his beliefs in anti-poverty programs, immigration reform, public funding of political campaigns, universal healthcare and early opposition to the Iraq war. On issue after issue, he did his homework, and got things done working with rather than alienating his colleagues on the other side of the aisle. His can-do ethic set an example for the grass roots activism that has become essential to making progress in today’s money/lobbyist-dominated political culture. When he thought it best to pick a fight, he allowed himself to be pilloried by the Right, as with this consciously over-the-top rhetoric during the 1987 Robert Bork Supreme Court confirmation hearings: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution…”
However, when another knock-down drag-out set of Court hearings followed George H. W. Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas five years later, Kennedy’s own sexual misbehavior undoubtedly contributed to his deafening silence during the 1992 Anita Hill hearings, which resulted in Thomas’ confirmation by just four votes. Thomas has enjoyed a lifetime Supreme Court post — voting against everything Kennedy believed in and often casting the decisive vote in a 5-4 ruling — and a profile in courage from the Massachusetts Senator might have made a difference in that outcome.
Toward the end of his life, Kennedy battled his illness with the quiet determination and endurance that earlier in his life facilitated his recovery from a plane crash and a terrible car accident. He played a courageous and key role in Barack Obama’s quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Risking the wrath of the Clintons, Kennedy gave Obama his most important endorsement to date in January of 2008, when just about everyone thought Hillary was a shoe-in.
The treatment of Ted Kennedy’s passing in the parallel universe of Fox News and right wing talk radio has been, with some exceptions, predictably disrespectful. Fox, for instance, has disproportionately emphasized Chappaquiddick during its limited coverage, which has been less extensive than that accorded the conservative Jack Kemp, a far lesser figure. (To their credit, some Republicans and conservative commentators, like John McCain and Pat Buchanan, did pay tribute to Kennedy.)
Right wing bullies like Coulter, Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Hannity–along with most Republican holders of high office–have spent their careers trying to make “liberal” a dirty word and placing supreme value on “free market” — translate “free for us” — economic and social policy.
No wonder they hated Ted Kennedy. He was that rare career politician who consistently embodied and fought his heart out for the ideal of human collaboration for the greater good, of not leaving behind the less fortunate. In my book, that makes him a hero.