Decades ago, it was a joke to use the term “moral” in the same breath as uttering the name of Teddy Kennedy. Not so anymore. For many of those who have declared the Kennedy dynasty over and done, let me say, “You are wrong.” Kind of. Words can be misleading. The term “dynasty” connotes an image of an all-encompassing power often with major accomplishments attached but also sometimes, typified by a self-interested, negative outcome for those outside of the dynasty. In the case of the Kennedys, an aura of romanticism, glamor and privilege sustained this dynastic vision. Today, that hyped-up estimate has been supplanted with a true, admirable legacy of public service. The foibles, the fiction of Camelot, has lost its luster in favor of helping those who are unable to help themselves. That, my friends, is redemption. That is the Kennedy legacy.
The young Senator Ted Kennedy gave a speech in Sitka, Alaska in April 1968, just days after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. and only weeks before the assassination of Robert Kennedy. This speech is eerily prescient of what was to come, not only in terms of another tragedy for the Kennedy family, but also regarding our nation. Even today, we still see the destructiveness that we have bestowed upon ourselves. This video is about 20 minutes long, but is well worth your time. Pay special attention to the parts running from 7:00 to about 10:35 and from 12:05 until 13:00:
Kennedy slams our nation for pulling apart, based on a constant conflict of rich versus poor, black versus white and old versus young. He questions the path of our country and condemns a complacency based on material wealth having more value than moral strength. He saw the inequality inherent in our supposed free nation and fought for the next 40 years to try to rectify that. Today, the health care reform issue is just another symptom, and a constant reminder, of the selfishness Kennedy spoke about in Sitka. Our legislators and population-at-large refuse to provide for basic human rights of general welfare, fearing financial and political loss. There can be no economic strength nor social progress nor moral growth if we do not answer the call of this imperative. Certain issues can not be politicized.
George Will wrote a heart-rendering tribute to Teddy:
My favorite part is the following:
Let us pay the Kennedys tributes unblurred by tears. Although a great American family, they are not even Massachusetts’ greatest family: The Adamses provided two presidents, John and John Quincy, and Charles Francis, who was ambassador to Britain during the Civil War, and the unclassifiable Henry. Never mind. It diminishes Ted to assess him as a fragment of a family. He lived his own large life, and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance.
Bob Herbert, columnist for the New York Times, also wrote a very moving piece about Teddy:
Herbert makes it clear that the Kennedys gave their best to us. What more can one ask of another person? Teddy was able to do this because, as he echoed his call in Sitka for individual responsibility being the necessary basis for affecting the greater good, he started at home. His sons’ eulogies attested to that devotion to his own children and then to his nieces and nephews, which then set the stable groundwork for spreading his ideals and actions throughout our land. Yes, it took him a while, he had to overcome numerous personal demons, but in the stretch, he got the job done.
To see President Obama, at the helm of our government, eulogizing Teddy is the culmination of all that Teddy fought for. Moreover, there are numerous Kennedy grandchildren who continue to carry the torch of John, Bobby and Teddy, in their better days, and Eunice also. Bobby Kennedy Jr. is an active environmentalist. Joe Kennedy II is an activist providing heating fuel for those who cannot afford it. I commend him on his efforts, even though he used oil made available by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, because like his Uncle Ted, he got the job done. When people are threatened with death by freezing, who cares where the oil came from? Patrick Kennedy is a Congressman from Rhode Island. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Kerry Kennedy is a prominent human rights activist. And Maria Shriver has her head screwed on so correctly that I would listen to anything she has to say. The “dynasty” might be gone, but its byproducts, its living benefits, what really and truly matters and makes a difference, go on.
As an aside, let me add that the Kennedy women are probably the backbone of the whole clan. To see the last surviving sibling, Jean, with Ethel and Victoria laying the cloth over Teddy’s casket, their strength and purpose needed no words. Victoria was Rose Kennedy incarnate yesterday: so composed, purposeful and with the help of her great faith, accepting of the circumstances while clearly demonstrating a strong will to go on.
Americans love pageantry, as does the Catholic Church, and Teddy’s funeral today lived up to that. At the same time though, it was such a sad occasion. The world has lost a symbol, our nation has lost a leader and the saddest fact is that five children have lost their father. As usual, the Kennedy family had to face their sorrow in the most public of forums. Yet they shared even that with us. The family’s constant offering of hope is what the Kennedy dynasty was founded upon and their ongoing dedication to bettering our lives is their legacy. The good generated by that family, the courage of their convictions, the dedication of their ongoing actions, will live on and continue to better each and every one of us, our country and the world.
To think that all of this goodwill is in place and just waiting for all of us to take up the cause is astonishing in its simplicity. If we act on the side of angels, we very well might have decent health care for all of us. A good start is to remember the journey, personal and professional, of Teddy Kennedy and all his family members who came before him. Bill Moyers said it all: “We’re all in the same boat”:
Bill Moyers appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher” Friday night for a long conversation, much of which focused on health care. When asked by Maher what would be a metaphor that could change the current thinking on health care, Moyers answered “we’re all in the same boat.” He went on to talk about the moral message that health care reform would send, which is that “we are in this together.”
“I don’t want to live in a country where I am on a hospital floor getting an operation that costs $25,000, and two floors above me someone is being denied that same surgery because he or she has no money. What kind of a civilization is that?” Moyers said.
The Kennedy legacy is based on their belief that we all have the same fundamental needs. Indeed: what kind of admiration or emulation can there be for a society that puts no value on their human beings? How can the United States expect other nations to embody humanity when it is ignored at home? How do we justify holding other countries hostage to those principles that we have no regard for? Teddy Kennedy tried, and succeeded, to make us hold true to those basic tenets on which our country was founded. The Kennedys turned those words of promise into reality. The younger Kennedy generations have been imbued with that idealism and when all the fanfare is over, that hope and call to action will thrive.
The Kennedy dynasty is gone but the legacy, thankfully, lives on.
This entry is dedicated to my everlovin’ daughter Maribel who will need her abundant strength and fortitude to get through this day. She will, I have no doubt about that.