What a summer it’s been, deathwise, I mean. Cronkite. Michael Jackson. Farrah Fawcett. Don Hewitt. The famous, the infamous. Many elderly parents of my friends, one by one, went to a land where the corned beef is always lean. Some losses were surprising, as if a small but important rug had been yanked from beneath our collective feet. Others we had prepared for, but still reminded us of the implacable clock that, for the most part, silently attends our lives.
This morning I awoke to hear that Ted Kennedy had finally fought his last campaign. Of course, he hadn’t been well for quite some time. And as a national figure, he has always been shrouded in controversy of one sort or another, some of which had faded over the years as he gained in decades of service and his adversaries found other oxen to gore. He leaves us as the nation is still immersed in the effort to protect all its citizens from illness and the existing health care system that profits by it. It was his big issue. And it remains unresolved. But Ted did get a lot done in his long and bumpy life. And he won the admiration of many people, one group, I think, in particular, that is notoriously hard to win over.
A little personal story will show you what I mean.
In 1996, the Democratic Party held its convention in the great city of Chicago. Several things of note happened at that convention. Bill Clinton was nominated for his second term. Dick Morris, then a political strategist for Clinton and now a right-wing scold, was found sucking the toes of a local working girl. And a few people I know hosted a short boat ride on the Chicago river for a variety of dignitaries who were attending the festivities. It was the usual thing. Indifferent white wine. Soggy little canapes. And some famous people. The city is very beautiful and imposing when seen from the river. The weather was nice. It was better than a sharp stick in the eye.
It was apparent from the moment he arrived on board that the rock star in our midst was Mr. Kennedy. As I recall, his nose was at its plumpest and shiniest back then and he was not slender. His Senatorial helmet of white hair was in full flower. They must issue those things at the door of the Capitol for legislators of long standing. He stood with a small gaggle around him as the boat plied through the water. I became aware, after a short time, of a great excitement on the banks of the waterway. Crowds of men who were at work there were watching the progress of our vessel. These were guys in hard hats, with big belts holding their array of tools, working on a riverside construction project. “Hey!” I heard a distant voice shout. “It’s Teddy!” And dozens and dozens of these working men ran to the edge of the water. “Hey, Teddy!” they shouted as loud as they could. “Way to go, Teddy!”
Ted Kennedy heard them, and his face broke into a huge grin known only to politicians who, unlike pop stars and celebrities, seek the adulation of actual people, not just the public. He walked to the front of the boat, launched a very professional and lusty wave of his own and yelled, “Hi!” And big, grown construction workers who ate rivets for breakfast cheered like little girls. And love flowed like the bright and sparkling waters of the river for a little while.
Some politicians are admired by pundits. Others feast on the support of the quiet, suburban bourgeoisie. Some wave one banner or other and attract a crowd for a time. What I saw on that little cruise in 1992 cannot be bought by advertising, or spun into life by pollsters or consultants. It’s the enthusiasm regular, working people feel for someone they know has their interests at heart, and has for a long time, someone who has had his own troubles, overcome some if not all of them, and can still hold a drink when he has to.
He may have been born with a silver lobster fork in his mouth, but Ted Kennedy was a man of the people, if that still means anything. And I, for one, will miss him.