Remembering the Kennedys

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.


  1. Steven Crowder has a good take on Kennedy’s death on the Big Hollywood blog:

    “The fact that the media decided to smooch the Kennedys’ rears through the death of Ted is appalling. Not only was there no mention of the Chappaquiddick river “incident” or his character assassination of Clarence Thomas, but the coverage was carried out in a way that assumed everyone was in agreement with the man’s misguided agenda.”

    • Thanks for coming through again, HJ. How would the informed among us know about the loony fringe if you hadn’t shared that link with us.
      Interesting how you and the others on that site bemoan the media for not talking about Kennedy’s misdeeds. Too bad it has been mentioned in almost every story about him as well as chronicling his other less than stellar moments.
      You can pretend nobody knows about the negatives in Kennedy’s life, even though it is well documented. Perhaps it makes you feel better to continue to bash Kennedy as if you are the only one who really “knows” about him. Perhaps it increases your own self worth in your mind, but for the rest of us it just makes you look silly and uninformed.

  2. That the last of the Kennedy brothers died of natural causes holds a symbolism for those who remember when assassinations were not uncommon in American political life.

  3. I’m surprised none of HJ’s teabagger friends didn’t chime in as well to give him a pat on the back he needs everyday of his sad pathetic little life.

  4. The fact that there are no more Kennedy brothers left is a sad thing, no matter what you may have thought of him.  How one family can have so much tragedy is beyond me…

  5. Saying nasty things about me doesn’t change the facts that Teddy behaved like a scumbag in the Chappaquiddick affair. It also doesn’t change the fact that most of the suck-up commentary after the senator’s death doesn’t mention Chappaquiddick, or minimizes it.

    So now comes a report in the Washington Post that “Sen. Edward M. Kennedy makes fresh revelations about his state of mind after Chappaquiddick in a 532-page memoir, ‘True Compass,’ to be published posthumously Sept. 14. He calls his behavior ‘inexcusable’ and admits that he made ‘terrible decisions’ at that time.”

    Gosh, ya think? And would have killed those pundits in the mainstream media to interrupt their breathless suck-up coverage to at least acknowledge Chappaquiddick?

    • Hugh,
      The reaction you are getting is typical of people’s need to protect abusers. It extends far past the topic at hand; so don’t take their comments to heart. Long gone are the days of holding people accountable for their behaviors. You are being attacked because you are poking at the denial of those who want to see and hear only what is comfortable for them. Hence the reason nothing will change much for the better, as long as people excuse child molestations, addiction, rape, murder, dog killing and fighting, etc. when it comes to their friends, family members, themselves, or their icons. We’re all imperfect human beings, which is just the way it is. Denying it won’t change the truth no matter how many people jump on here and bash you for pointing it out Hugh.

      • Come on, Kathleen. For someone who often shows a deep, sensitive, and caring nature on this site I think you are really missing the point on this one.
        “Need to protect abusers”?? Nobody is doing that. If you read the comments, many acknowledge Kennedy’s past. Few, if any, pretend nothing happened. You make it sound like if it weren’t for Hugh telling us about it no one would know of Kennedy’s past. Give us a break, please.
        Hugh is perhaps the most negative person on this site—and that is no easy task given most of negativists on SJI. He has not told us anything we don’t already know and seems to delight in continuing to beat a dead man.
        Most will acknowledge Kennedy’s faults as well as his many attributes. Hugh, on the other hand, would have us believe that Kennedy never did anything but drive off a bridge.
        When Hugh chooses to join the real world and look at the whole picture instead of his selective editing, then he won’t need you to defend his biased, and hateful view of the world.
        You have shown us the civil side of life and the importance of treating people with respect, so I am surprised that you would support Hugh’s hateful view that he espouses here.

        • Thank you for your kind words. Like Hugh, I too think excusing bad behavior only serves to harm others, and enable icons to think they are above the law. I agree Kennedy did some very good things. No doubt, but he was also a wealthy public figure who got a way with a LOT more than you or I would have under the exact same circumstances.

          In my opinion, Hugh is trying to defend, remember, and honor the memory of a beautiful young woman who died unnecessarily at the hands of Kennedy. His realistic point of view is fine with me because I see the whole Hugh, not just his words.
          Hugh is NOT saying anything that isn’t true. Okay, his delivery and timing might need some fine-tuning, but according to many SJI bloggers, and few of my friends, so does mine when I feel passionate about something. wink (I’m working on it!)  I say look at his point, and don’t make this personal.

          Hugh is all right in my book. He has a great love of animals, and he has said some very loving things at times when others have been mean spirited, and hurtful. He has a right to speak his truth just like you and me, and have his opinion respected.

      • Kathleen, thanks for the kind words. Everyone is upset with me for not acknowledging any of “his many attributes” [like smearing Robert Bork]. But Teddy has plenty of friends on this board, like Mayor Tom and Jude Barry who praised Teddy to the high heavens. And such uncritical praise of a controversial public figure cannot go unchallenged. The people who are criticizing me can’t handle the fact that one of their idols was flawed.

        • Do you read any of the comments here? It appears you do not based on what you say. Most on this site CAN handle someone being flawed, in fact many comments reflect just that. It appears you can’t handle a flawed individual who also happened to contribute a great deal to society.
          But, I’m not going to try and discuss it with you. You hate him, you cannot accept his positive contributions. Enjoy yourself.

        • Hugh,
          You’re more than welcome. I might not always agree with you but you always support your position with facts. I think that we all need to read past the words and look at the point being made and even when we disagree, we need to realize that their are many wonderful ways of looking at things.

          If SJI, and mediation has taught me anything, it is that people really do see things they way they present them, and that people are basically good and mean well, even the ones I disagree with sometimes. wink

  6. Tom, thank you for your eloquent and heartfelt remembrance of Ted.  As visibly flawed as he was, he left an even greater legacy of leadership, and only hope that future generations will respond to his call to social responsiblity.

    • It was a touching and thoughtful memorial, Tom.  You wrote it with a detachment that an historian needs, and you also wrote it with a respect and fondness that an old friend deserves.

  7. At the Huffington Post, Melissa Lafsky insightfully asks what Mary Jo Kopechne “would have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history. …  Who knows — maybe she’d feel it was worth it.”

  8. Tom,
    Thank you very much for remembering Ted Kennedy.Going back to 1980 at The Peralta Adobe house I was there with you, Ted and Cesar Chavez. Once again. Gracias! Sincerely, AARON R. RESENDEZ

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