Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
I confess that I did not think much of Ted Kennedy when I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during his 1962 campaign to win the Senate seat that had been held by his brother, John, who was president.
My Nieman class had met with his brother, Robert who, I felt, was more suited to the job. But Robert had decided to be the attorney general. And I think I wrote that Ted was a Kennedy lite.
How utterly wrong I was became clear when I got to Washington. It was clear to me that Robert, who was in the Senate representing New York, wasn’t the senator Ted was. Indeed, I caught hell from Robert’s press person for a piece pointing out that while Robert was more an executive type, impatient with slower-witted conservative colleagues, Ted was a born legislator. He knew how to listen, argue, make concessions and get things done.
His staff was always top notch, liberal and activist and often I worked with them and the senator I covered, Phil Hart, of Michigan. They were on the same wave-length and gave me many a fine story on the latest efforts by business and conservatives to undermine worker rights, the new Medicare and Medicaid legislation and the consumer movement. On occasion, I visited Ted Kennedy in his office. Nearly always he gave me one of his illegal stash of Cuban cigars.
My best memory, however, was St. Patrick’s Day in 1970. In the summer the year before, Kennedy had driven off a bridge in Chappaquiddick and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne had drowned. I believed Kennedy when he said he tried to rescue her. But he delayed reporting it and went to his staff instead to concoct a story.
Phil Hart helped me make sense of it. Ted was especially agonized by Robert’s murder, which left Ted the head of their huge family. He caved in, drinking, driving and acting recklessly and almost trying to destroy himself, Hart confided. Ted’s career hit a low point when Senator Robert Byrd took away Kennedy’s leadership position in the Senate. Hart and Kennedy, both Catholics, trusted each other and Hart slowly brought Kennedy back to life.
That led Kennedy to make his return to political life on St. Patrick’s day, and I was one of two reporters who got to spend the day with him – in the adoring crowds in South Boston - that nearly crushed him and me. And during the rides along the Massachusetts Turnpike (Kennedy took the wheel from his driver), his wife of 24 years, Joan was with us. I discovered the pressure she was under to be a Kennedy. I learned to see the Kennedy behind the tabloid nonsense. I came to learn that Ted Kennedy sat at the bedside of his son Patrick, who lost a leg to cancer, and that his other son, Edward Jr., had come close to dying from asthma.
Learning such things gave me an understanding of why Ted Kennedy was as passionate as he was. He easily won re-election in 1970. But I think he would have made a helluva president.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mark Sherman: Paul Simon and Me