Ted Kennedy is dead.
Even after the funeral obsequies, how strange it is to hear; how jarring to read. Like all people, ordinary ones or acclaimed historians, I have been reviewing my connection to him and to the Kennedy family.
I gave my first speech as a fifteen year old in a contest at Bellarmine Prep in 1961, reviewing the benefits of a Catholic in the White House. It began:
“When Senator John F. Kennedy was chosen President last November 9, the thought of a Catholic in the White House sent shivers up the spines of a great number of Americans as the worst calamity that ever happened in the history of the United States.”
And concluded with this:
“He may bear the cross; but it will be the cross of all the minority groups in the United States—the cross of the Jew, the Negro, the Catholic; the cross of political revolt … If he fails, it is our failure also. If he succeeds, we shall have arrived at long last— at the New Frontier.”
It was a good speech. My father, a friend of JFK and floor leader at the 1956 Convention where John Kennedy failed to get the Vice Presidential nomination, helped me. His brother, a priest in Palo Alto, contributed much to the effort, and to the lively arguments on syntax and theme in our front room. No timid voices in that pair; to tell the unvarnished truth, they wrote it, and a distant time of “No Irish need apply” and “coffin ships” was relived again in my mind’s eye and at our kitchen table. The education—and debate—were priceless.
I failed to place in that oratorical contest. (My brother John took the speech, reworked it a bit, did it better, and won the prestigious Owl Oratorical Contest at Santa Clara University two months later.)
Last weekend’s nonstop coverage gave me a lot of time to think. The Kennedys always made you think; not of them so much, but in the old joke on egotism, on what YOU meant to them.
San Jose played quite a role in the Presidential campaigns of the Kennedy family. My dad met JFK in Reno and brokered the agreement to let Gov. Pat Brown run as a “favorite son” in 1960, but then to deliver the delegation’s majority to JFK in Los Angeles. It collapsed in a mighty heap. John Kennedy never forgot my dad’s help. Winning is a great palliative and I watched that bonding closely: Irish, Catholics, Democrats, cigar lovers. To my dad and to many, JFK meant so much, tribal loyalists, pols, and dreamers alike.
We all know the painful history of John and Bobby. Twelve long years after Chicago, Bobby spoke in our St. James Park in 1968 and won the California Primary soon after. And then America was changed forever in that kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel.
Twelve more years later, in 1980, as a young councilman, I introduced Ted at the Peralta Adobe in the last stop of his quixotic campaign. He said, “Now tomorrow when you vote, when you think of old Ted, think of Tom too!” He won the California Primary the next day. I watched at Madison Square Garden as he sailed into history later that summer and dramatically, the era of Kennedy presidential politics ended not with a whimper, but a shout and a challenge to never let the dream die.
We stayed in touch over the years. He endorsed me when I ran for mayor. We collaborated in the effort to edit mutual friend John Hume’s autobiography. He always spoke of history and Ireland and San Jose when I would infrequently see him.
I last spent time with him some years ago. He gave me a lengthy interview in his private Senate office on a book I was researching, and there, among the very private photos and mementoes of his clan, amidst all the history, he seemed much more pensive that usual.
He spoke of his sister Kathleen and the tragic marriage and the death of her soldier husband, the son of the Duke of Devonshire: “She’s buried there at Chatsworth, you know.” Later he spoke of Honey Fitz and his love of Ireland. He asked about what my father had done in 1960, and seemed to remember much, just for me, I thought then; he said that the President never really realized how much impact he could have had on Irish peace and would have, until his visit there in 1963, but he noted, “. . . he had much to distract him with Berlin and Cuba.…” He made much of the concluding discussion about his family and my family.
Perhaps, much of his real thinking is clear when you recall how often he quoted Yeats valedictory on his own life, “. .. . and my glory was I had such friends.” He really believed it, I think.
And I guess that is the ultimate reflection that I have of him and of the Kennedys. To even those that did not always agree with him, thought he was a bit too liberal (an accusation he would surely embrace ), he made it about us; he and they made our families central. Our story was their story, explicitly or implicitly. They had the knack of making us feel better, and reach further.
Ted Kennedy is indeed gone. Yet the memories of his family and what they meant to each of us, all the successes and failures, ours and theirs, the country’s, are still very much with us.
In Robert Bolt’s last screenplay of note, “The Mission,” he has the archbishop say, “The spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.” It does. It has and will.
As we remember and celebrate his family, we also remember and think about our own fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. We do not magnify him unfairly in death—not in the least. JFK and Bobby and Ted made us feel that the “New Frontier” was out there, possible, achievable, worthwhile. This is a gift left to us and it is a gift that keeps on giving.
Great leaders and good friends always do that.