Another reflection on Senator Kennedy

Now that I, like much of Massachusetts, have spent several days glued to the television or, in the case of my husband, participating in the memorial, but before we turn to the speculation about his successor, I want to post a few thoughts from Patricia Williams writing in the Sunday Guardian.

There isn’t anyone who grew up in Massachusetts who doesn’t feel personally touched by the life of Kennedy. There’s the family legacy. His maternal grandfather was the amiably colourful mayor of Boston, John Francis Fitzgerald, the child of immigrants and the first Irish Catholic to achieve such power in the then-English – or “Boston Brahmin” – dominated-political landscape of New England.

The election of “Honey Fitz”, as he was known, was significant because this was the Boston of Henry James and the Irish were very much looked down upon. I remember my grandmother describing signs in the windows of certain establishments that read: “No Irish, no coloured, no dogs.”

The particular struggles of the Irish in Boston is largely forgotten today; indeed, the Kennedys are often characterised as part of “the north east liberal elite”. But the origins of their family success are rooted in a fight that spans all aspects of a broader civil rights movement that stretches back to the 1800s and included not merely African Americans but Irish and Italian immigrants, the descendants of indentured servants, the poor, the labouring classes.

It is true that the senator’s life history was one of great human complexity. And just as the healthcare debates have been disrupted by an astonishing amount of hateful speech, so the national blogosphere is filled with bitter, ungenerous commentary about the time he cheated on an exam at Harvard; or how he called his political advisers before he called paramedics when his car plunged off a bridge on Martha’s Vineyard, leaving the body of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young campaign aide, submerged for nearly nine hours; or whetherhe drank to excess.

But here in Massachusetts, it is the political commitment that counts. It is his public service that means the most and the regional allegiance to this man crosses all partisan boundaries. The Boston Herald, a local tabloid that spilled oceans of ink denouncing him in life, remembered him with uncharacteristic mistiness.

As I write, President Obama is giving the eulogy at Senator Kennedy’s funeral. To African Americans, Obama is “our Kennedy”. I wept when I discovered that the funeral was to be held at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Although many in the national press cite the church as one close to the hospital where his daughter Kara was treated for lung cancer, or one that is in a neighbourhood once inhabited by Irish immigrants, it is also in the neighbourhood where I grew up. It is in what most Bostonians know as a black neighbourhood, a “dangerous” neighbourhood, a neighbourhood “in transition”.

(This is Tremont Street near Mission Church.  Photograph from the New York Times.)

These days, it reflects the demographic that both Kennedy and Obama represent: a new generation of the American dream. It is a neighbourhood filled with hopeful immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa and Bosnia and the Middle East. It is on the cusp of gentrification – a neighbourhood of college students and the underemployed, of medical technicians and starving artists.

There’s a black barbershop next door to the church, and a pizza joint and restaurant that serves Jamaican food. If some reporters were surprised when they set up the satellite feeds, those who knew anything about Ted Kennedy and the tradition from which he came were not.

There was a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses that Senator Kennedy loved, a quote that he read at his brother Robert’s funeral, and one that is now being read as he is laid to rest: ” I am a part of all that I have met… ” begins the stanza. Senator Edward Kennedy lived his life precisely at the crossroads of all that he encountered – at the intersection of statesmanship, of history, of moral purpose, of tragedy, of compromise.

There are many who think that his passing means the end of an era. When I look at the unparalleled outpouring of those he met, whose world he touched, I am confident that the work he began lives on not only in the politics and presidency of Barack Obama, but in the dreams he ignited in so many, many others.

Some people will question the sanity of women, people of color, the poor, the disabled and the gays and lesbians wondering how we can mourn a man who in the words of one of the commentators who posted about this piece “left a woman to die in his car”.   I don’t think they will ever (or perhaps can’t) understand what he did for people who were not born with his priviledges.  This is why so many of us stood and watched the motorcade and were glued to the television.  This is why Governor Deval Patrick could quote his mother “I love me some Kennedy.”  This is what we will miss.

Senator Ted Kennedy and the Dream

Today I stood out on Court Street in Boston and watched the motorcade with Senator Kennedy’s hearse pass by.  It was an extraordinary moment as first the hearse and then cars with family members passed by to the waves and applause of those of us lining the street.

This from the editorial in the Nation

Senator Edward Kennedy, who died on August 25 after a battle with brain cancer, was one of the giants of American political life. For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance civil rights, healthcare and the economic well-being of Americans bore his name and resulted from his tenacious, passionate and effective efforts. His commitment to public service was driven by an exuberant engagement with politics, a deep sense of compassion and a belief that every American is entitled to dignity as well as equal justice under the law.

Yes, I know he was a flawed man.  A womanizer and partier well past the age when one should give up such activities.  And there was always Chappaquiddick.  But in some way those flaws made him more of a common man. 

I worked for his short lived Presidential campaign in 1980 and will never forget his speech to that convention.  Again from the Nation.

That was not to be. So on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in New York City that summer, Kennedy addressed the delegates. His speech, the most inspired in a career of inspired oratory, was not a concession. It was a call to arms. Kennedy’s was a plea to the party to stay true to “the cause of the common man and the common woman”–a call that, unfortunately, would not be heeded by too many Democratic nominees who would campaign for lesser purposes. “I’m asking you–I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice,” Kennedy proclaimed, as he outlined the jobs-with-justice pledges he and his delegates had nailed to the party platform. “Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land. We dare not forsake that tradition. We cannot let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history.”

Kennedy ended that speech by declaring, “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

The question in my mind is who will replace him as the leader of what has often been called the liberal wing of the Democratic party.  Senator Kennedy was really “The Fighting Liberal.”

Kennedy’s early support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, eloquently outlined in his final address to the Democratic convention in Denver last year, was never naïve. Kennedy knew the younger man would stumble and struggle, make mistakes, disappoint the faithful. Kennedy himself had done all these things. But he believed that Obama was made of stronger stuff, the same mettle that led a defeated presidential candidate to deliver a fight-on address to the 1980 Democratic National Convention and then to do just that across the next three decades. It is this understanding that “the cause endures” that made Kennedy so inspiring, and so essential to the political and policy struggles of his time. If he was right to place his faith in Obama, as we now must hope more fervently than ever, the loss of the liberal lion will be a cause of sadness but not a setback. And we will know that on that hot summer night in New York City twenty-nine years ago, Ted Kennedy was right: “the dream shall never die.”

I end with some words from the Boston Globe’s Derrick Jackson.

As one African-American woman, a former educator, said to me yesterday , “I’m not so sure that the other Kennedy brothers ‘got it’ right here’’ – she pointed to her heart – “about civil rights. Ted Kennedy did. I cannot think of a single vote on a single issue that I disagreed with.’’

Nor can I, come to think of it. Like no other senator, Kennedy sought to weave the legal gains of the 1960s into the working fabric of American life. He helped make a reality not just of civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans, but also of rights for women, the poor, people with disabilities, and people who need health care.

He was an overdog for the underdog. Without him, how much more would the Democrats have teetered in the face of Ronald Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign of the 1980s? Without him, how much more of an identity crisis would the party have had when President Clinton steered the Democrats to the center, finishing off Reagan’s anti-welfare work?

His work could not close the  still-growing chasm between rich and poor, between CEOs and grunt workers. But he was a leader in recognizing the gaps. In law after law, he converted the heat from the torch of the 1960s into a warmer embrace by America of all its people.