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REFLECTIONS: Edward M. Kennedy

SaulFriedman75x75 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.

Category_bug_reflections 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


Comments

Thank you, lovely post. You give us a nice peak at the personal side of Senator Kennedy. It is both heartwarming and sad to read all that journalists and bloggers have to say about this man. He knew extreme heartbreak and it magnified him.

Thank-you for sharing your memories of Senator Kennedy. I know we have all lost a great leader, but you have lost a personal and professional friend.

Watching the news and tributes yesterday was a history lesson.

Thanks for this. What stands out out for me is the picture of Phil Hart helping the young Kennedy get straightened out. They used to form those sorts of human relationships, the members of that rarefied club.

In 1970 I worked on a Senate campaign. My guy, Phil Hoff of Vermont, had been a very public drunk and had gotten clean and sober after hitting bottom. He talked about it freely on the campaign trail. After all, half of Vermont had seen him drunk as governor. Now he wanted to go to the Senate.

I was just a very young staffer, but I remember a parade of Senators and ex-Senators coming to support Phil, including Birch Bayh who apparently was "Mr. Senate for Sobriety" at the time. Phil lost anyway to a Republican who was also a drunk and who died in office.

But what struck me was how they treated each other. It wasn't all politics. I don't know how much of that remains -- and sometimes I don't want too much of that to remain. But it was a different time.

I think the lack of comments shows how most of us outside the beltway felt about him...

I hope that we can fulfill Teddy's dream of universal health care. It is his signature issue and the best way to pay tribute to this wonderful man would be to make it happen.

I was in Mass. when Mary Jo Kopechne drowned and Ted was excused by some and and reviled by others. Feelings ran high in that state and that he was able to survive that scandal speaks of his resilience and strength.

I think we have to take the whole picture into consideration: 2 brothers killed; a man with a drinking problem...but he turned his life around. And he helped all of us in return, Thanks for this post. I fear we will lose the fight for health care reform without him...I hope and pray I am wrong

My friend . . . I do not agree that Ted would have been a great President. His career began and ended tainted with his failures. Yes, I suspect he was a warm host and interesting personality. But not a saint. Many of the Kennedy clan shared that description

Old Joe was a tough Irish boss who knew the buttons to push that added to his pocketbook. Wife Rose was a strong minded matriarch blessed by her faith and the glue that held the family together. Young Joe was apparently the pride of the family and destined for great things . . . before he died. The climbing plan of Old Joe had to be changed and it was. John assumed the mantle and gained from the formidable efforts of his father. He was smart, an effective orator, and for a very short time, President. Robert was the overactive hawk, smart and abrasive, who was a good foil and advisor to John. The two of them managed to mis-manage our response to the Russian probe into Cuba which came very close to starting World War III. Then the same two brilliant boot legger's sons directed the Bay of Pigs fiasco. I guess we've all forgotten about that. Next came Theodore with a bluster and bad, really bad, common sense. He worked very hard and for a long time, to be a pompous boil on the Senate's behind. Perhaps his most awful performance (outside of missing most roll calls and the Mary Jo incident) was his vile, vicious and unwarranted attack on Robert Bork. I'll neither forgive nor forget it. He disgraced the Senate and his own family (once again).

Despite it all Ted was a colorful rascal and "soft and safe be thy resting place, forever".

This is a great memory of Senator Kennedy. But, it was Edward Kennedy Jr. who lost his leg to cancer, not Patrick.

http://is.gd/2CCZl

Once we liberals began trusting in him again, we were able to see how great he was as a senator. Thanks for this.

Ted was a Pisces. Explains an awful lot. They need structure to thrive and the back half of his life had this enabling his becoming a large contributor to American life.

Just imagine how many women would have made great presidents if they had had the chance. As my late husband always said, "When voters only dip into the barrel of men's intelligence and talent they miss out on over half of the population that have waited to be tapped for centuries."

No wonder this world is in such a mess when the brains and talent of so many women are left uneducated and ignored.

I enjoyed your remembrances. With Ted Kennedy's death I find myself reading as many tributes online as I have time for. There are a treasure trove of memories, an outpouring of respect, a balanced sense of loss and celebration for his life. The best tribute, however, would be for the Democrats to support health reform and get the job done.

Thank you, Mr. Friedman for your interesting fact filled story about Senator Kennedy. When I was in the choir at our Temple in the 1970's - he came and spoke to the Congregation. He was a good orator, not that I remember what he talked about but what I do remember is the moment our eyes met (for an instant prior to his speech) and it sent shivers down my spine for I had never seen anyone so handsome and famous before. WhenI was 12 years old, I went to Washington with my girl scout troop and met President Kennedy (he was a Senator then) and that also has stayed with me through life. Just an instant in time...

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