Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Brief Remembrance of Ted Kennedy

Back in '91 or '92, when I was in Boston for Reuters, I got to participate in an annual event that was legendary among journalists in the area: The Kennedys threw open up their Hyannisport compound to reporters and their families for a summer day of eating, playing and casual schmoozing.

And when I say "threw open," I do not exaggerate: We had the run of the place. When Ethel Kennedy's front door is ajar and you wander in and she looks up from her paper to tell you a story or two about Bobby and point out John's favorite chair in her house, well, that says something about the manner of this remarkably gifted political family.

It was like a company picnic and the entire management team was there to make us feel like family. We were greeted with a receiving line, with every hand shaken by every single Kennedy, even those whose ages were in the single digits, because it's never too early to learn about the family business. There was no pressure or spin but there was one particular Kennedy, driven by her life-long cause, who was on the prowl in this target-rich environment: a beleaguered PR person begged me to listen to Eunice Shriver's spiel about the Special Olympics and visibly sighed with relief with gratitude after I had.

Sen. Edward Kennedy — "Ted" to many there but not me — was our official host. The de facto Kennedy patriarch both loomed large, and mingled. I was flabbergasted at the ease with which he and the family dealt with so many strangers, so many whose job it was to not exactly paint him in the most favorable light.

There were probably no enemies in the press there, however, and it is also astonishing at how few enemies Sen. Kennedy actually had. His best friend in the Senate (perhaps anywhere) was the very conservative Orrin Hatch. Like the hospitality Kennedy showed the guests on his lawn we have all heard stories of his ability to reach across the aisle and really any divide in a sincere way.

Joe Scarborough, a rather rapid right-winger when he was in Congress and now a morning show host on MSNBC, recently told a story about a personal tragedy involving a child. "The first person who called was Ted Kennedy," Scarborough said, seeming still to wonder how the senior senator from Massachusetts could possible know so much about the family situation of this junior representative from Florida, and relate to it on so personal a level, and offer whatever sort of medical or any support he could. And stay on the phone for a long time. And mean it all.

I had no close encounter with Sen. Kennedy that lovely summer day, but he and my wife ate his food — and covered up an enormous, tabloid-esque scandal: there was broken glass in one of the cakes. No harm done as we made this discovery. I went to the catering table and asked for the person in charge and quietly told him the situation. He was grateful, and quietly pulled it off the table. Later on he came by to sort of take our temperature and I am sure our manner convinced him that his secret was safe with us. Even he had the grace that seems to be in the family's DNA by not seeking to take any formal steps to see to it we wouldn't give this scoop to the Boston Herald.

And how does a gracious Kennedy see to it that you do not overstay your welcome? One of the activities listed on the invitation was a boat ride in the bay. It was the last activity of the day. We were asked to gather our belongings. You know where this is going: it was a one-way ride to the parking lot that was our staging area, with the Kennedy's all along the shore, waving us goodbye.

I covered Sen. Kennedy once or twice when he was in his home district. As my brief was national and international in nature there wasn't too much story in him for me. But there was a big issue at the time that was national in scope and in which Sen. Kennedy had a personal stake: Health care reform. Then, it was an initiative of President Bill Clinton who had First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get it done.

Here we are nearly a generation later with Sen. Kennedy's life work yet undone. He was ever the optimist; back then, at an event, the money quote from him was that he was sure health care reform would get done because the president had put his wife in charge. It was a fabulous line, both for a cheer and a laugh, typically conversation-ending and inarguable while being entirely playful. That is how you get things done without pissing off your opponents.

Weeks before his death Sen. Kennedy was quoted as saying that he would "walk on broken glass" to vote on health reform bill and, sadly, he will not get that chance. I don't think it is disrespectful — and doubt Kennedy would not have done some political calculation himself: how are health reform's chances with its greatest evangelist in public service now an object of such sympathy?

Photo: Ted Kennedy on his Hyanniport home porch, Sept. 28, 2008 by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki.

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