The passing of an era?

Published 3:44 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hardly anyone said about Ted Kennedy, “Oh, I guess he’s all right.”

There was no lack of opinion about the last of the Kennedy brothers. No confusion. You either liked him or didn’t. No middle of the road.

Yet, as I watched the coverage of his passing on television and read the recollections of people in the newspapers, I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy. At the Irish wake on Friday night at the JFK Library, there was no doubt that he had been a real friend to many important people. At the funeral service at the Roman Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, I was touched by the eulogies of his two sons.

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I know what many are thinking. What about Chappaquiddick? If it had not been for his “name,” wouldn’t he have been charged with manslaughter in the least and, quite possibly, even murder? Did he not leave the scene of an accident where a young lady died when there was the possibility that, had he acted differently, she might have lived?

Yes, that was a stain on his legacy that could never be reconciled. In his own words, in a televised statement on the incident, he said that “his conduct made no sense to him at all.” And “he regarded, as indefensible, the fact that he did not report the accident to the police immediately.” (These quotes were copied from the Internet site, Wikipedia.)

Some may say that he never paid the price that his actions warranted. I understand and agree, but, there is also no doubt that Chappaquiddick put an end to any presidential aspirations Ted Kennedy might have had. He never lived that mistake down and all the good that he did in his life has been placed on one side of a scale, while the other side was occupied, at least partially, by his failure to act responsibly on that July 1969 night.

The negative side of the scale also was weighted down by a lifestyle that included too much drinking and partying. His first marriage failed in part because of those lifestyle choices and, at times, he was caricatured as tremendously overweight, drunk, and so far to the political left that it was a wonder he didn’t fall off the landscape. At times he was a big joke, literally and figuratively.

So, why would I or how could I feel sympathetic?

Why did I watch any of the services or read any of the tributes?

For one reason, the Kennedy name or mystique, if you call it that, has been a part of my life just as it has been a part of most Americans my age. In a way, I grew up with that family being what the media calls “the closest thing to royalty our country has ever known.” I’m not saying they earned it or warranted it; I’m just saying that the Kennedy family has been a part of this country’s political landscape for more than 50 years.

I was 11 years old when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president. He was young and vibrant. His wife was beautiful and their children became our children. The country was caught up in the romance of an attractive and charismatic King Arthur and even called his time Camelot. I was too young and nave to believe anything but the best about our president and our country.

It seemed that, not only had we elected a president, but we had also elected a family. There was a dynasty involved and that included brothers Bobby and Teddy. In my innocence, I believed that we were set, as a country, for generations. I had no thought of Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. I was 11 and all was good.

Camelot crashed on Nov. 22, 1963. I was 14. I remember that day and the ones that followed easily. The pictures of the Kennedy family as they mourned are burned in my memory. They include Jacqueline and her children, Bobby and Teddy and many others.

Then there was June 5, 1968. Bobby was shot in Los Angeles and died the next day. I was finishing up my first year at Valdosta State College and was a typical young and liberal college student. Someone woke me up with the news, and I was so saddened. It may have hurt more than 1963.

Suddenly, Teddy was the only Kennedy left. Pretty soon, he made that tragic and irreversible error at Chappaquiddick. Many would have bought their way out of trouble and retreated to private life never to be heard of again. But he didn’t. He accepted the bright light of public scrutiny. He lived in a fish bowl that none of us will ever understand. He struggled with personal devils and lost many a fight. He was on the wrong side of the political ledger. Yet, he stayed on the job for 47 years. He persevered.

I didn’t agree with him. I would not have voted for him. I don’t place him on a pedestal.

The fact of the matter, though, is that at his death, he was surrounded by a huge family that loved him and had leaned on him for 40 years. He could have been just an uncle to his brother’s families, yet they spoke of him as someone who was there for every graduation, every wedding, every funeral, every need. They could talk to Uncle Teddy.

His sons spoke with great love of their father. He had instilled in them that same attitude of service and perseverance that he had. He may have failed in many of life situations, but he was successful as a patriarch to a huge and difficult family.

A knee jerk reaction to Ted Kennedy is easy to have, but I wonder how I would have played the hand he was dealt. When I think of that, I can find a little sympathy and a good word to say.