Say what you want about Ted Kennedy. Everybody already has and will continue to do so. The so-called “Lion of the Senate,” who died this morning after a courageous fight with brain cancer, had more than his share of human failings. He has long been a punching bag for the ideologues on the right and a person that even many progressives – especially in the South – always felt slightly embarrassed about; sort of like a wacky uncle that few in a family want to acknowledge as one of their own.
I have never seen Kennedy that way, however. Sure, I know he was an imperfect man with some personal demons. But I’ll tell you what else he was. He was a great public servant – one of the greatest U.S. senators ever – and a man who lived out his deep commitment to a better, healthier, fairer, more just and equitable world until his dying breath.
I have a vivid memory of attending a protest rally on the national mall in the early 1980’s to protest one of Ronald Reagan’s illegal and immoral interventions in Central America. Several thousand people had gathered – a good sized crowd – but nothing to make much of a splash on the national news. It was cold and raw day and most of the speeches were rather lackluster and predictable.
And then, in a surprise to a lot of the marchers, out came Ted Kennedy to address the crowd. This was in a period in which his presidential aspirations were already essentially over. He had no particular political reason to speak. The protesters’ cause had little chance of succeeding in the near term. And still he spoke. And I remember, thinking to myself at the time, “This is not the guy who couldn’t articulate to a TV reporter why he wanted to be president” (as he had happened during his ill-fated challenge of Jimmy Carter). “This guy is on fire!”
The speech was, in a word, awesome. He was passionate and energetic and brave. He spoke from the heart about human rights and America’s proper role in the international community. He electrified the crowd in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an elected official replicate since. Within 10 or 15 minutes, that crowd was ready to do what he told it to do.
In short, this was not the awkward speech of a spoiled, underachieving son of privilege; it was a passionate and compassionate stem-winder from a fully-formed individual who loved humanity and had dedicated his professional life to making life better for the have nots of our planet. It was a speech that could not have been faked. Only a real and deep wellspring of belief and commitment could have provoked such a performance.
So, in the days ahead as the media circus reviews Kennedy’s life, we’ll hear lots of talk about Camelot and the assassinations and personal foibles and missed political opportunities and five decades as a Washington institution. I’ll watch some of it. But when I think about old Ted, I’ll mostly think about that cold day on the Mall and how much greater our country would be today if we could somehow manufacture about three or four dozen more such passionate leaders.