I woke up early this morning, just before dawn, and went into my office. As my laptop flickered back to life, all I saw was a photo of Ted Kennedy from the 1980 Democratic National Convention and the name, in large type, “Edward M. Kennedy.” I heaved a deep sigh. The inevitable had come to pass.
Yes, it was inevitable that Kennedy was near the end of his life; there is only so much modern medical science can do against a malignant brain tumor. What I didn’t expect, though, was the sense of loss I felt as I sat down and began to scan the headlines about his death, at the age of 77.
I am a liberal, as my mother raised me to be (though not quite as vehement), but I’ve never felt a special kinship to the Kennedys. I never got wrapped up in the cult of personality surrounding Camelot and the family’s storied, tragic history. I’ve followed them, sure, as a subject of American history and as a proud resident of their home state. But I cannot count myself as a devotee.
Nor can I count myself as one of the many people across the state and the country who have been personally aided by Senator Kennedy. There are many stories about ordinary people calling the senator’s office for help cutting through red tape when dealing with the death of a loved one in the armed services, wading through immigration paperwork or needing funding for a worthy initiative. And he and his staff helped them.
While I value the voice Kennedy has provided on Capitol Hill, particularly on issues of great interest to me like health care and education, I think that the reason I felt so sad upon hearing of his death was because the man who did these little things that were actually tremendous things, for people just like you and me, was gone. Now, where will they turn?
Knowing Kennedy was there — and that he did these things — was a great comfort to me, to a degree which I did not appreciate until his light was suddenly snuffed. He was like a security blanket: if things ever get bad, you can call Uncle Teddy. Maybe that is the best kind of political representation — one you can feel, but do not acutely need.
Kennedy’s death leaves us at a loss in many respects. Massachusetts’ junior senator John Kerry is famously incapable of the warmth and accessibility Kennedy wielded with ease, and his legislative prowess is even harder to measure. (If anything, Kennedy was good at forging other people’s perceptions of himself.) How will Kerry pick up the heavy baton Kennedy leaves behind?
Also, in his last days, Kennedy — knowing the end was nearer than any of us cared to admit — pressed for the state legislature to repeal a law passed in 2004 that mandates a special election, rather than a gubernatorial appointee, to determine succession in the case of a political vacancy. Needless to say, I don’t look forward to the political feeding frenzy that will grip the commonwealth for the next few months.
Kennedy’s death comes at an interesting time, and not just because of the ongoing debates over health care reform — Kennedy’s signature issue — or even the proximity of Kennedy’s death to that of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. But Kennedy’s death also comes in late August, the waning days of summer. By virtue of their association with the Cape, the Kennedys are in a sense synonymous with summer — so many photographs exist of touch football games on the Hyannis Port compound, regattas, shoreline strolls and other such moments. Maybe Kennedy wanted to go during this golden time — the water is still warm, the leaves have not yet turned, the sun is still relatively long in the sky. We all know he loved sailing, and today looks like mighty fine sailing weather.
You know what’s funny? In thinking about and referring to Kennedy, I’ve often called him Teddy. Where this came from, I don’t know. A popular affectation picked up from fawning media coverage? My own inclination to call people by nicknames? I don’t know. It just always seemed right. Even though he was larger than life in many respects, he always felt real, accessible and present. Familiar. But now, he’s gone.
So, rest in peace, Teddy. In death, you can finally rejoin your brothers and all the others you have lost over the years.
But the dream, Senator, the dream will never die.