I am having a hard time imagining politics without the Kennedys. The family and their history have been a part of my political life since I was a small child.
My answer to that famous question of "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" is "Not born yet, don't hate me." But, you would think that I had been around when it occurred, so familiar am I with the story and the feeling of devastation at the loss.
Born Irish and raised Catholic, I had a few strands of the Kennedy family mystique woven into my own tapestry, as if our heritage were somehow elevated by their success. Many families I knew had a photo of President Kennedy up on their walls along with blessed portraits of the Pope and Jesus Christ. When I came along in the late 60s, people seemed to still be mourning Jack, and then mourning Bobby.
Maybe it wasn't just us Irish Catholics. It's easy to see how the nation, and Democrats in particular, might feel as if hope, also known as Camelot, had been stolen from them. As imperfect as President Kennedy was, what came after him; the escalation of Viet Nam, the struggles for Civil Rights, and the scandal known as Watergate brought this country to its knees.
In the 7th and 8th grades, JFK's speeches were standard fare for those participating in Forensics competition. I still have much of that oratory rattling around in my head and can follow along with recordings of him like many people can sing along with a song they haven't heard in 20 years.
Of course we knew the Kennedys did not walk on water. The treatment of women in their personal lives did not always reflect the actions they took in fighting publicly for their rights. My mother happened to be a friend of Mary Jo Kopechne, so my family was well aware of the Chappaquiddick incident.
With the legacy of his brothers resting on his shoulders, Ted Kennedy lost his way, as I have seen many, too many, youngest sons do. However, some say with the help of his wife Victoria Reggie, he fought his way back to purposeful service to his country and constituency.
When I moved up to Boston in the mid 80s, it was as close to the center of the political universe as I might get without going to Washington, D.C.. It was a city of history, legacy, ideals, and the Kennedys. A friend quickly recruited me in her efforts to resurrect the College Democrats, and I found myself holding signs, making phone calls, and stuffing envelopes for state-level candidates and eventually, for John Kerry's effort to succeed the respected Paul Tsongas.
It was at Kerry's victory party that I met Ted Kennedy. He was kind and approachable and I was left with a sense of meeting history. My story is not nearly as interesting as those many whom Kennedy helped directly, but the experience was unforgettable nonetheless.
Years later, I volunteered for a Kennedy campaign, doing the usual things that lower-level campaign staffers do. I didn't even cross paths with him during the campaign, but my efforts garnered me an invitation to the victory party at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. I'll probably always regret not going.
I thought about going down to the JFK Library for the viewing; the family's legacy has meant that much to me and my view of the world. Unfortunately, neither of my children would have been able to stand the long lines, so I was grateful that my older son noticed the flags at half staff and asked about them.
His question gave me a chance to explain to him the story of the Kennedy family; the combination of privilege and service; the dictum that "for those to whom much is given, much is required." We don't seem to believe that as a nation anymore, and I wonder if churches still teach the concept in real-world terms.
Like a lot of other people, I am left wondering if the Kennedy legacy, and the old-style liberalism the family embodied, ends here. That the Democratic party has moved more toward the center in recent years, is not an entirely bad thing, in my opinion. But, where are the strong voices of critique against greed, corporate welfare, and war profiteering going to come from now? Is there anyone left who understands that a modicum of security and stability for the lowest rungs on our socioeconomic ladder benefits society as a whole? Who truly fights for the little guy anymore?
In addition to their service, another think that distinguished the Kennedys was their great rhetoric. There have been many, many lines in speeches given during and before my time that have brought me to tears. In the past several days, many of Ted's speeches were revisited in the media; our memories restored through archived recordings. The lines that stick with me were delivered by Ted at a time of loss; the 1980 Democratic Convention. I hope they will still prove true as time goes on.
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.