Ted Kennedy: Living Long

“It’s too bad,” a friend once said to me, “that Jesus didn’t live long like the Buddha.” He wasn’t talking theology: he was comparing the lives of two great teachers.  “I mean—imagine what he might have accomplished.”

Ted Kennedy lived long like the Buddha. By living long instead of dying young, Ted taught us lessons that his elder brothers—brilliant, shining lights—were unable to impart.

It’s not like I knew any of them.  But like many folks here in Massachusetts, I felt a kinship to the clan. I met the Kennedy ladies at my grandmother’s Somerville apartment, where, for reasons mysterious to me, they gathered for an afternoon of tea, finger sandwiches, and political discussion. I was four years old, and only interested in protecting a black kitten named Admiral Nibs from the well-dressed rears of the ladies.

My grandmother’s Kennedy connections were more political than personal, but she acted like they were extended family.  She wrote a poem for Jackie after JFK’s death, sending it with a note, experienced-widow-to-new-widow. As for Ted, my grandmother thought of him as her very own Senator—firing off a letter whenever she saw an injustice to be remedied.  “I’m going to write Teddy about that,” she would declare, as if he were her favorite nephew as well as a political crusader.

My mother, too, believed in the power of Ted.  Whenever she told me, “I wrote to Our Senator,” I knew she meant Ted. His colleagues through the years, esteemed and adept, were never Our Senator in exactly the same way.

I met Ted twice. Once as a little girl—a head pat and a huge smile is all I recall, and once when he came to my High School. No head pat that time, but a smile, a handshake, and good wishes. 

It was the mid-1970’s, and public sentiment toward Senator Kennedy was mixed. We knew he had left the scene of accident in which his passenger had died, and that he had not sought help immediately. There were questions about his alcohol intake, his fidelity, his very moral fiber. Who was he?

He was human, as it turns out.  Ted made mistakes. At least one really big one, which he later called “indefensible.”  Some folks say only a Kennedy could have squeaked out of Chappaquiddick with a suspended sentence, free to get on with his life.  They may be right.  But I think what matters more is this particular Kennedy understood that the power and privilege of his family came with a responsibility for service.  And so he served.  



He served not passively, but with passion.  He made good on his promises, and he only promised from the deep seat of personal belief. That’s what struck me when I heard him speak that afternoon in high school: Here was a man who fought for what he believed in.  Yes, he was a great orator, even speaking to an audience not yet old enough to vote, but more, he was a man with a mission—determined to make things right, or at least better, for all of us—especially those who were not born wealthy or privileged or male or white.

We were never at ease with his bad judgment that late night, or comfortable with his excesses, but he fought the good fight, and he knew how to get things done. He was amazing, Our Senator.  That’s why we kept sending him back to Washington.

For the past twenty-two of Ted’s forty-seven years in office, I have lived a few miles from his Hyannisport home.  I’ve seen him only once—presiding over a tableful of Kennedys at a waterfront restaurant, his boat docked outside. We Cape Codders like to give our Kennedys their space, but I couldn’t help sneaking a covert glance in the direction of his boisterous luncheon party. As I left the restaurant, my ever-curious eyes met his.  I felt embarrassed to be caught staring, but he didn’t look away. He held my gaze, grinned, and gave me a wave.  I waved right back, returned his smile with mine.  Outside the restaurant, I said to my lunch companion, “He looks great.   I’m so glad.”

And I was.  Because like many of us here in Massachusetts, I took Ted’s triumphs and tribulations to heart.  We didn’t only watch him work. We watched him live. We watched him enter his own new era, redeeming himself—or perhaps more accurately, reclaiming the man we knew he could be.  Ted became someone we treasured not only for his public achievements, but for the way he led his private life. The way he fathered those Kennedy kids who had lost their Dads so young. The way this youngest, most indulged Kennedy boy—the one known for messing up—grew into his role of elder and patriarch.

In the end, I think we admired him for what he accomplished, but we loved him for who he was: a man who was human—flawed and fallible—a man who learned hard lessons and shared his learning with the rest of us. Because he wore his humanity on his sleeve, Ted leaves us a legacy not only of public service, but of teaching. He taught us to meet challenges with perseverance, to move from self-indulgence to self-discovery, to transform unspeakable loss with boundless love.

Yes, Ted lived long like the Buddha.  If only he could have lived a little longer still.

Copyright 2009 by Kate Whouley