I was "introduced", you might say, to the Kennedys when I was thirteen, in 1960.
My father, who had supported Eisenhower in 1952 and Stevenson in 1956, was supporting Kennedy in the 1960 election. JFK and my dad both graduated in the Class of 1940 from Harvard. Although I was born in California, to where my father had escaped his Bostonian parents after World War II, there was a little Kennedy in both of us. I inherited mine from my dad, of course. As for him, it was impossible to grow up a middle-class Catholic in Boston without being touched by the politics - Honey Fitz, the Saltonstalls, the McCormacks, James Curley, the Cabot Lodges, the O'Neills.
My dad died in November of 1960, just days before Kennedy became president. Three years and 11 days later, Kennedy was dead. By then, Teddy Kennedy had been elected to John's Senate seat and I had been taken to Boston with my grandparents - the same people from whom my dad had fled after the war.
My father, Paul, and the Kennedys had something deep and abiding in both their souls and hearts: a sense that one's purpose was to be of service to others. Paul did that in the only way available to him, as a high school teacher (and just before he died, a college professor) dedicated to the highest level of education for all his students. He was always on the edge of trouble with his employers, because he saw and fought the evils of educational institutions' morphing into corporate training camps and statistically tracking children into segments destined to be marched into predestined careers. My dad, you see, was not a "go along, get along" sort of guy. He died, I think, of a broken heart.
My father's sudden death of a heart attack triggered a depression in me that I carry a bit even to this day. I miss him. The violence and unearthly suddenness of John Kennedy's death, when I was sixteen, in turn, triggered a month-long psychic break that nearly hospitalized me with fear and grief. It was impossible, but shattering, that two men so young and with such depth of value could just cease to exist without reason or warning.
My father and JFK did share other similarities, but dedication to helping others be the best they could be was key. My dad did that is his way, Kennedy in his. I think they both died because of that dedication. The ruling class did not much appreciate an up-start Irish Catholic rich boy challenging their power and agenda ...
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I have had much in common with Ted Kennedy. I guard my anonymity carefully in these pages, but it seems appropriate to reveal that, in "real" life, I share his nickname. We also share a history of debilitating struggles with alcohol, as well as late-in-life resolution of those struggles; failed marriages ('though Kennedy's second turned out a lot better than mine); and some serious life mistakes.
But most of all, we shared a common vision - that a society which works for the happiness, safety, justice, and health of all is a society which will endure and flourish. One which does not, one which nurtures divisions, competitiveness over cooperation and consensus in social matters, and hatred, will wither and die.
Let me share one of my personal experiences with Ted Kennedy, for having worked in Massachusetts and national political settings, I had the opportunity to meet him several times:
In the late seventies, I served as a program director with a community action agency in the "war on poverty" effort, as it was being strangled by the Nixon and Carter administrations. In this position, I traveled several times to Washington in lobbying efforts to attempt to restore funds that had been stripped from pending federal budgets.
On the first trip, we were scheduled to meet with Senator Kennedy at about eleven a.m., just after he finished with a senate judiciary committee hearing.
We went to the committee room about ten o'clock to listen and wait. We noticed that Kennedy seemed saggy and pale. Sure enough, after ten minutes, two very large men approached Kennedy from the aisle and, obviously physically supporting him, escorted him from the room. A minute later, an aide informed us our meeting would be on the senate office building steps later that afternoon.
We had some lunch and kept our other appointments with George McGovern, Jacob Javitz, and others, then gathered in the appointed spot at quarter after three. At exactly three-thirty, three men, the senator and his two "assistants" strode toward us at a lively pace, Kennedy at least ten yards in the lead. He bounded up the steps with that massive grin of his and greeted us, all twenty, with a hearty "Great tuh seeyuh!". Then he shook each of our hands with a personal quip to each (mine was about our nickname) and talked to us for a solid half hour about our concerns for the budget and strategy to restore funds. He knew the issues thoroughly and pledged support. He later followed through with masterful floor moves.
During the meeting, I looked in his eyes several times. He was thoroughly stoned, undoubtedly on painkillers he took for a back injury sustained in a small plane crash several years earlier. Although I had several years of sobriety under my belt then, I felt a kinship. He was a very human individual who took his job very seriously. He carried a heavy burden with a zest that seems to have been lost to the public servants we see now in those rooms on the Hill.
Because of the myopia of the media, Ted Kennedy may be narrowly remembered: Chappaquiddick, drinking problems, womanizing and ... health care. But, know it personally or not, Kennedy was involved in every aspect of American politics. I might be dead if it were not for public funding for jobs programs, social and mental health services programs, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other programs that help people who need it, all championed by Ted Kennedy.
I do not agree with every stand he took. He voted to become involved in Afghanistan; he initially support No Child Left Behind; he was a strong friend of Zionism. So be it. There's not one woman or man on this planet with whom I totally agree. And Ted Kennedy, better than most people, knew instinctively how to deal with that.
I will miss Ted Kennedy - for his dedication and commitment; his integrity; and for all the joy and sadness that he, as a human, presented to so many millions.
Good night, Senator
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