Monday, August 31, 2009

On the Death of Ted Kennedy

The night of April 4th 1968, riots raged across many, if not most, major metropolitan areas of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis, and tensions finally reached their breaking point. Everywhere, that is, but Indianapolis. That night, Robert Kennedy spoke to a crowd, mostly black, that was expecting a political speech. Instead, he had to give the news that the standard bearer for the civil rights movement, the man who was going to lead blacks out of oppression and bring them as full members into society, had been shot and was dead. His extemporaneously given speech conveyed his empathy to the crowd, reminding them that he had also lost a family member to a white assassin’s bullet. He knew their pain, and he mourned with them. He called for love, forgiveness and understanding, and for that night, the cycle of violence was broken.

It was, perhaps, the most impressive speech a Kennedy has ever given. An amazing demonstration of the victory of love and forgiveness over vengeance and anger. An inspiration to all who work to combat hate, prejudice, and oppression. Proof that sometimes, just sometimes, the good guys can win.

That night showed what one man could do. It showed that reason and cooler heads could prevail. It showed what was right with America. It was one of the tiny ripples of hope that Bobby talked about. The ones crossing each other to build a current that would help sweep down the walls of oppression. It was a remarkable thing.

Two months later in another city was another gun, another assassin, and another slain leader. Bobby Kennedy also fell. The political history of our country is a shamefully bloody one. Many have been killed, and there is rarely anything positive, any consolation we can take from the event. Fortunately for Bobby, there was one, if only this: perhaps the second greatest speech given by a Kennedy, Teddy’s eulogy of the third brother he had lost too young.

He quoted liberally from Bobby’s speeches. He spoke on love; what it meant to him, what it meant to his brothers, why it’s important. He spoke to our aspirations, and our future, reminding us that even the most incremental change comes with challenge and danger. He told us why its important to strive continually for improvement, both of ourselves and of our nation. Perhaps most importantly, he laid out, in barest terms, what it means to be a good public servant, or for that matter a good Christian.

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

I know of no higher praise one could give.

Teddy, the last of his brothers, spent the rest of his life living his brothers’ legacy. Though by no means a perfect man (particularly in his personal life), none of them, and surely none of us are. As a public servant, he carried himself with dignity, and when he saw wrong he tried to right it, when he saw suffering he tried to heal it, and when he saw war he tried to stop it.

While his brothers were all taken at very young ages, their meteoric lives and tragic deaths cementing them in the collective psyche, Teddy toiled on after them. Though they had but a little time to create those ripples of hope, Teddy’s years in the senate enabled him to help build the tide that would sweep away much of the injustice of racism, sexism and socio-economic discrimination. He wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave act, and created COBRA, to ensure those who lose their job have an opportunity to keep their health insurance. He helped raise the minimum wage, and was a constant opponent of discrimination in any form. He opposed the Iraq war, calling it the most important vote he ever made and his early endorsement helped propel Barack Obama to the nomination, an election night victory, and to his swearing in as the 44th President of the United States, when we as a nation showed that though much work remains, it is possible for anyone, regardless of the color of their skin, to rise to the highest office in the land.

Though he would be the first to admit he was not a deeply flawed person, he was a fantastic legislator, and when he went to vote, his mind was on those who are the least in society; those without a voice, without an advocate, and without protection. There are very few today who serve with that as their chief goal. The nature of politics and fundraising dictates that certain interest groups have sway over a politician. With his seat, Ted rarely had to worry about a challenger, he rarely had to worry about big business, and he could always beat his corporate opponents. He was free to carry on his family’s legacy. He knew that much had been given and that much was expected, and he worked tirelessly to repay the blessings he had recieved.

It will be impossible to miss his presence in the senate in the coming years as we debate wars, safety nets, and health-care, his signature issue. His loud voice for the voiceless will be sorely missed by all who needed him. As the last public figure of his generation, he carried the legacy of his family, shaping and molding its image, and keeping the issues that were important to him and his brothers in the forefront.

With the last of the Kennedy Brothers returned to the dust, all that is left is to eulogize them. I can think of no better way to remember them than Teddy’s own words..

They were good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

May we forever remember the sacrifices they made for us, and the good they did.

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