Thursday, May 22, 2008


Like a lot of people, I've long had a fascination with the Kennedys. Not a "People" magazine, NY Times best seller list fascination. But rather, I've been intrigued by a family that for all its wealth and privilege provided their nation with three sons who reached the pinnacles of power by championing the needs of others.

I know the argument can be made that they were also philanderers, backroom political brawlers and often used their wealth and privilege to less than noble ends. But I lived through the thousand days of "Camelot" when John Kennedy was president and it really was an age when you felt a change in the world and hope for the future.

I had a paper route for the Regina Leader Post when I was a kid and I will never forget delivering the evening newspaper on November 22, 1963 after JFK was killed in Dallas. The front page had a big red headline that screamed "Kennedy Slain!" and every single subscriber on my route was silently waiting on their front steps to take it from me. Many were in tears. The feeling that something special had been taken from us was palpable.

Five years later, not long after his brother Bobby was assassinated as well, I was in Washington on a freezing December morning and made my way to the eternal flame that burns over John Kennedy's grave at Arlington cemetery. The only ones there were me and two Marines guarding the site. The feeling that the flame marked more than a final resting place was overwhelming.

I've written about Bobby Kennedy before and in many ways his philosophy of life has guided the way I've lived my own. Asking "Why not?" instead of "Why?" and accepting that some will read questioning the status quo as rebellion or bitterness instead of an honest desire to find something better.

Ted Kennedy was the only one of the Kennedy brothers I actually met -- when he invited himself along on my honeymoon.

I first got married in 1976 and we honeymooned in St. Kitts long before it became a tourist mecca. One afternoon we took a side trip to its sister island of Nevis, and visited the stone house where Thomas Jefferson had been born. There was a beautiful sailboat anchored nearby and the Guide told us it belonged to Teddy Kennedy, who'd signed the guestbook the day before.

I'd kind of written Teddy Kennedy off at that point. Any aspirations of becoming president had drowned with Mary Jo Kopechne, the aide/mistress/whatever he had left to die after his car went off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island. His lame explanation of what had happened that tragic night made him the butt of jokes by stand-up comics and an infamous ad in the National Lampoon.

Like most, I thought he'd half retired, content to spend his remaining days as the fat and mostly silent senator from Massachusetts.

The next night, we were in Antigua, slowly making our way back home, and went to a restaurant in the harbor. I, once again, noticed the Kennedy boat moored nearby and when we were seated, a team of waiters hurriedly pushing tables together to accommodate a large group. That group turned out to be Ted Kennedy, his wife and kids and a few guests. Ted sat right behind me, excusing himself as he squished his girth into his chair and scrunching me in the process.

Throughout dinner, any movement he made ricocheted off me and I finally made some smart ass comment about the place not being big enough for the both of us. He laughed and suggested we just shift our table to join theirs, offering a bottle of wine to smooth the transition. So we did.

He was a polite and florid man, with the feel of someone who had spent a great deal of recent time in the company of his family and needed a break. We didn't talk about anything of importance, unless you class sailing, the Caribbean or seafood in that category. When he discovered we were on our honeymoon, he immediately offered an invitation to sail around the island the next day.

I think that invitation had more to do with my ex-wife than my conversational skills. She was smokin' hot and he was -- well -- a Kennedy.

Next morning, we arrived at the dock and were ushered aboard, given some quick instruction on our sea duties and set sail. Kennedy manned the wheel and barked orders with the kids, other guests and ourselves jumping to fulfill the commands.

Late in the afternoon, he and I ended up sitting together and, unsure if I should bring up the topic, I finally mentioned how much I had admired his brothers. I felt uncomfortable doing that, knowing the discomfort it might cause as well as the accepted wisdom was that he hadn't reached their level of achievement.

But his reaction was the same as any man who has lost a cherished family member. And suddenly, maybe for the first time in my life, I became aware that the public persona we're presented on those who are famous or celebrated persistently fails to acknowledge that they're just people and not really any different from the rest of us.

We talked about both John and Bobby, but I got the feeling that Bobby's loss had been a deeper personal hurt. We also talked about what it was like to be a US Senator and he was quite open about the long and trying process of creating and passing laws.

I began to get an inkling of just how dedicated he was to his "craft" and that the shallow concerns of the media and political pundits mattered far less to him than the job he was trying to do.

It was a wonderful day and I was sorry to say good-bye when we docked that night. To be honest, if I were American, I would have become a confirmed Kennedy supporter for the rest of my life. He gave my ex a hug and admonished us to call if we were ever in Washington, all of us knowing the remote chance of that happening.

But it did.

In 1991, Kennedy was embroiled in the hearings to determine if Judge Clarence Thomas should be appointed to the Supreme Court. This was the infamous "Long Dong Silver" scandal in which one of Thomas' aides had accused him of sexual harassment. I was in Washington working on FBI stories for "Top Cops" and decided to visit the circus.

I had a letter from the FBI introducing me as a reputable person. When I showed it to the security officer at the metal detector in the Capitol rotunda, he quietly steered me around the device not wanting to cause a fuss "just in case you're armed".

I watched the hearings from the gallery. Kennedy sat quietly through it all, white haired and noble looking now, but obviously fully concentrated on the proceedings and weighing every syllable of testimony.

After about an hour, I'd had enough and decided to leave when the committee took a break. Kennedy was in the rotunda when I returned and noticed me with one of those "Do I know you?" looks. I nodded and walked over, re-introducing myself.

He either remembered me or gave that impression with the smoothness of a professional politician. I asked if he'd been sailing lately. He shook his head, gesturing to the nearby Thomas and saying, "I've been to busy with this..." managing to stop himself before saying anything that might be politically incorrect and at the same time putting more disdain into an adjective than I'd ever encountered.

This week Ted Kennedy suffered a seizure and his prognosis for a full recovery is not good. Between Robert Byrd's tears and the partisan comment "I wouldn't want to be that tumor", you get the impression that Ted Kennedy's time in the corridors of power is coming to a close.

Whatever history may say about him, my impression is that he was a decent man. Not a perfect one to be sure. But one who tried to do something worthwhile with the time he was given on this planet. In some ways, it's fitting that one of his last public acts may have been his endorsement of Barack Obama, a man who shares the spirit of Hope that imbued his brothers.

And if, amid all the "Kennedy Curse" nonsense and tabloid reporting that will inevitably follow his remaining days, somebody bothers to check; I think they'll discover that what Ted Kennedy ultimately accomplished in life is more than both of his far more famous brothers combined.

May good winds find your sails, Senator Kennedy. I'm happy I had the chance to cross your path.


Don Gerz said...

Excellent. Your article gives me a better idea of who Ted Kennedy than anything I have ever read about him. Thank you for sharing your experience of him.

Don Gerz said...

Excellent. Your article gives me a better idea of who Ted Kennedy than anything I have ever read about him. Thank you for sharing your experience of him.

Don Gerz said...

I meant to say, "who Ted Kennedy was."