The year was 1969. I was driving down Route 2, in eastern Massachusetts, heading west from Cambridge to Arlington. This was, and still is, a nicely kept road, bordered by trees, lawns, and attractive New England neighborhoods. So, it was a bit jarring when I noticed a giant two-word message spray painted on a retaining wall. It said, “Ted Stay.”
It must have been July 20 or 21 that I saw that crude, but effective billboard, a picture of which appeared the following day in the Boston Globe. I’m able to narrow down the time frame because the message was meant for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in response to calls for his resignation.
On the evening of July 18, Ted attended a party on Martha’s Vineyard’s Chappaquiddick Island. He left with a 28-year old campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne. There is much speculation as to where they were headed, but we will never know for sure. We do know that his car went off the Dike Bridge into Poucha Pond. We know that she drowned, he survived, and the police weren’t notified until the next day.
This is too clean and simple to be totally accurate, but to me, the citizenry of Massachusetts fall neatly into three different groups. There are those who adored him, including the the Route 2 spray painter, the 62 percent of our voters who returned him to office in the next election, and the tens of thousands who lined up to view his casket or wave solemnly at his passing hearse.
Then, there is a loud, vitriolic minority who rule the talk radio airwaves, some of whom still call him a murderer, and all of whom believe that his liberal policies have contributed heavily to the decline of this once great nation.
And finally, there is a tiny (or so it often seems) third group, comprised of those of us, who view him as neither hero nor villain. For us, he was the third brother – not Jack, not Bobby. We like him a little or we dislike him a little, and the same for his policies.
Those who do not adore him believe that his family handed him a Senate seat which he did not earn. “If your name were Edward Moore, instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke,” said his opponent for the nomination, Ed McCormack.
And of course, he was right. It wasn’t that Ted had a lousy resume; he had no resume at all. But McCormack sounded like a bully and the voters didn’t like that. So Ted was elected. He became part of our political furniture. Certainly not a mover and shaker. He was just there. Until that night.
This past weekend, I watched nearly every minute of the services and listened to all of the eulogies. And I was moved. They described a wonderful man, with a huge heart, who treated ordinary people with the same focused attention he gave to the powerful. They described a man who had worked tirelessly, brilliantly, and selflessly, and who had become the biggest mover and shaker in Washington.
But I felt with complete certainty that, at the JFK Library and later at the Mission Hill church, Chappaquiddick silently hovered over the room. It didn’t get mentioned by name, nor should it have been.
But when Teddy Jr., delivering his eloquent and touching eulogy, mentioned redemption and referred to his father “righting wrongs of his own failings,”and when President Obama mentioned “experiencing personal failings and set-backs in the most public way possible,” we knew that they were respectfully acknowledging the invisible witness.
Ted clearly panicked that day in 1969. His actions appeared selfish and cowardly. And because he was a good and decent man, he felt unbearable shame and guilt, as any good and decent person would.
They say he lost his presidential bid in 1980 because he was unable to answer the question: “Why do you want to be president?” I think he heard a different question in his mind: “Why do you deserve to be president?” And the demons would not let him answer.
There was the period in his life of notoriously bad behavior. The public drunkenness and the womanizing. I remember, back then, hearing Orrin Hatch tell us what he had told Ted privately: that his lifestyle was getting in the way of the good work that they were doing together and should go on doing together.
The eulogizers didn’t speak about the period of self-destruction, or at least not directly. We heard over and over that Vicki had saved him. Yes, here was a man who badly needed saving. Somehow she convinced him to forgive himself, or perhaps she helped him broker a deal with his demons.
Ted never had to worry about being re-elected. Except once. In his 1994 race against Republican newcomer, Mitt Romney, the polls showed the challenger remarkably close. I voted for Romney, thinking that it would be a refreshing change to replace our senator-for-life with a younger, pro-business, fresh thinking Republican.
But Ted’s faithful were not going to turn him out. He won with 58 percent of the vote -- a squeaker for him, but convincing enough to discourage future would-be challengers from being foolish enough to enter Kennedy Country.
Mitt later saw an opportunity to win the Massachusetts governorship. Again, I voted for him. He got off to a promising start, showing us his tough, pragmatic CEO brand of leadership. Then, when we needed him most, he was missing in action.
Though he denied the rumors, Mitt was quietly gearing up for his presidential bid, using Massachusetts as a stepping-stone, and he was busy with the very time-consuming work of changing his stance on social issues to make himself acceptable to the GOP’s conservative base. To win the nomination, he would need an extreme makeover.
For all the years that liberal was a dirty word, and when successfully labeling your opponent a liberal was all you needed to win an election, Ted Kennedy proudly remained liberal-in-chief. You knew where he stood, and you knew he would remain there, no matter what.
“It was his character – his courage, his kindness, his persistence, his honesty, and his almost heroic patience in the face of setbacks – that was the most important element of his success.”
The above quote comes from an editorial comment on the inside flap of Peggy Noonan’s book, When Character Was King, a loving portrait of her boss, Ronald Reagan. Can that same character label be suitably applied to Ted Kennedy?
Well, there are those three groups. Those who adore him would smile with approval. Those who despise him would be infuriated by the praise. And some of us, in the third group, might finally let go of our indifference.