Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) addresses the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 25, 2008.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) addresses the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 25, 2008. Paul Sancy/AP
There is an outpouring of love as Edward Kennedy is laid to rest Saturday. He stirred up feelings on all sides.
He was the most natural politician among the Kennedys: charming, funny, self-effacing. He loved to tell the story of how, when he first ran for the Senate, a man on the street asked, "Teddy, is it true when they say ya never worked a day in your life?"
At that point in his life, Kennedy had only campaigned for his brother, served briefly as a U.S. Army honor guard in Paris and gone to law school. So he said, "Yes."
"Well, lemme tell you," he said the man told him. "Ya ain't missed a thing."
People liked him; he liked doing favors. Great natural politicians welcome the chance to brighten people's lives by sending them a card, finding them a job or sending a signed baseball to a child. There are people of all stations in life, all parties and persuasions, who got calls, comfort and support from Kennedy when they were troubled, sick or grieving. He knew a lot of loss in his life; he felt a kind of family tie with those who suffered.
We can forget, 40 years after, why the incident at Chappaquiddick was so damning. An innocent young woman died. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident; a judge said he had behaved negligently. You don't want to judge a man's entire life by a single incident. But when Kennedy let more than nine hours elapse before reporting the accident that took Mary Jo Kopechne's life, and talked to his political advisers before the police, it seemed to fit a pattern of loutish, irresponsible behavior.
Despite his legislative achievements, and the growing regard of colleagues, there were other incidents. Some were just tabloid splashes. But in 1991, Kennedy took his son and a nephew to a Palm Beach bar. The nephew was later charged and acquitted of raping a woman he met there. Kennedy had to stay silent over Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. As columnist Anna Quindlen put it, "He was muzzled by the facts of his life."
That fall, he told a group at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that he had come to realize that personal failings could damage the good he wanted to do, and even the kind of uncle and father he wanted to be.
"I recognize my own shortcomings," he said. "The faults in the conduct of my private life — I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."
And eventually, he carved a kind of profile in courage by taking control of his life to lend service to others.
As his old friend and antagonist Bob Dole said this week, "He had flaws and shortcomings. But he had a heart bigger than all outdoors, and for that he will be part of American history for the right reasons."