Remembering Ted Kennedy
To call you the greatest of all the Kennedys might strike some as lofty rhetoric. But it isn’t. You gave your life to your country, as surely as those patriots of old gave theirs for the United States and your beloved Ireland.
A great Irish chieftain has passed.
Sure, Jack became president and Bobby became a folk hero. But they never accomplished what you did throughout your life.
Protector of the poor, the downtrodden, the voiceless, the needy. Those in pain, those in suffering. The litany goes on. You were there for them – oftentimes you stood alone. That great booming voice, relentless, despite the odds.
Yes, you were flawed. Are we all not?
But underneath lay a relentless dignity, courage and decency that I never found in another politician living or dead. You will still stand taller in your grave than the critics who hounded you.
That was you, Teddy. I was so proud to call you friend.
One of my most cherished memories ever will be the call from you as I sat in a Dublin hotel in August 1994. The IRA ceasefire had just been announced. There were no cell phones then – an excited hotel employee came running into the restaurant. “Ted Kennedy is on the phone.”
Everybody there applauded. They knew what you had done – you brought peace to Ireland.
Without your critical backing for the visa for Gerry Adams from President Clinton in 1994 there would have been no IRA ceasefire. Without you President Clinton would never have had the political muscle to give Gerry Adams the visa that led to that ceasefire and to peace in Ireland.
You made Clinton appoint your sister Jean Ambassador to Ireland where she played a key role in the peace play. You were the voice for Ireland on Capitol Hill for a decade, like you were the voice for so many other causes.
When you decided Gerry Adams wanted to make peace you brought America with you. It was a huge risk but you took it. I learned then that with Ted Kennedy in your corner everything was possible – even ending a 30-year-old conflict that everyone said was unsolvable.
Right on the cusp of the Adams visa, British dirty tricks tried to set up a bogus IRA outfit in San Diego of all places. They called in a fake threat and the president wavered.
You called me around midnight and asked me to get Adams on the phone – to tell him straight that you, Ted Kennedy, would stand by him and vouch for him with the president that very night and the visa would go ahead. Clinton stopped wavering and granted it.
It was a huge leap of faith but not to you it wasn’t. You rarely calculated the odds but if it was right you did it – like bringing peace to Ireland.
What a politician you were. One of my fondest memories is the day you and the beautiful Vicki took me campaigning with you during a tough re-election battle against Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 1994. It was a close race but that day I saw Ted Kennedy the master politician in action.
Everywhere you went you were like the character from Cheers, where everybody knew your name. No matter whether they were high up or low down, you grabbed them in that great bear hug, asked about their family, even knew the names of their kids.
All day along every street, across every district, I saw the same extraordinary outreach. I had never seen anything like it.
You were to the political world born but you created your own legacy as the greatest American to ever serve in the Senate.
And boy, could you make a speech! I had the misfortune to precede you on many occasions, when I was organizing the immigration reform rallies over the past few years.
We brought 3,000 people to Washington. You came to all our rallies and I often introduced you – and got out of the way as quick as I could. It was like bending before a powerful gale, once you took the podium.
Whether it was the “Boys of Wexford” song we always played for your entrance, or your deep emotional ties to Ireland, your staffers told me those immigrations rallies’ speeches were among the best speeches you ever made. I think it was because in your heart you identified so profoundly with the underdog, with the undocumented of whatever nationality trying to begin life in America like your great-grandparents from Wexford did right after the Irish famine.
You never forgot your roots, your deep identity with the downtrodden and your brothers’ dream that you could help raise people up.
Eighteen months ago I testified before your Senate committee on immigration. You turned it into a wonderful dissertation on the role of the Irish in America.
As the other senators sat and watched in some bemusement, we ranged over every Irish topic from immigration reform to Northern Ireland to your beloved County Wexford and the news from Ireland.
You put on quite a show and the other panelists beside me sat dumbfounded. They had come for a discussion on immigration and instead they got one man’s love of his heritage and his history.
How you loved that history. Your siblings told me you were the reincarnation of Honey Fitz, your mother’s father, a great big bluff Boston politician, who masked his political acuteness with a hail fellow well met outlook.
You didn’t need to hide your light – you were the brightest in the Senate on great issues such as minimum wage, civil rights, immigration and health reform and the great wars of our times. You opposed Iraq and Vietnam, you saw the dangers of Watergate before anyone else and the promise of Obama before most.
A lonely voice often – but so often a visionary one.
Your brothers were always with you. You took me around the Kennedy Library one rainy night in Dorchester in the 1990s. You showed me their historical artifacts, and their unbelievable impact not just on American life but on its psyche.
I wondered that night how difficult that must have been for you, to always walk in their footsteps, dwell in the shadow of two of the great Americans of the past century.
Yet you surpassed them. In his wonderful book Edward Kennedy, A Biography, New York Times writer Adam Clymer argued persuasively that you were not just the greatest senator of your time but of all time.
Clymer wrote: “A son of privilege, he has always identified with the poor and the oppressed. The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits but sails against the wind.”
Once more into the breach, Teddy.
Some years ago you invited me to a small dinner you were holding for Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey at your home in Virginia. As the night wore on and the conversation turned to Ireland you had tears in your eyes describing the harsh ocean passage across the Atlantic your forefathers took. It was like they had left yesterday and you understood the pain they must have felt all those years ago on the “bitter bowl of tears” the Atlantic Ocean represented.
That ability to empathize, to understand how others felt, to remember and reach out to the downtrodden, the underprivileged and those most in need as you went through life set you apart.
Now you are on the long journey home to join Bobby and Joe, and Jack and Eunice and the others. They will greet their kid brother with a smile and a hug, I’m sure, and an acknowledgment that you did not just well but very well.
In a famously competitive family, that will be praise indeed. I’d say they are right.
The Boys of Wexford are finally reunited.