How long does Camelot last?
At least one more night.
By now you’ll likely have read reviews of Ted Kennedy’s electrifying appearance at the convention last night or have seen it on television. For me, it was a moment of personal significance and emotion.
As a young man just one year out of law school, I became legislative assistant to Senator Frank Church of Idaho in October, 1963. One month later, my wife and I were on the roof of the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue watching President Kennedy’s widow pass by with two small children marching at her side. We were at curbside as the horse-drawn coffin of John Kennedy made its slow journey to Arlington Cemetery.
When Robert Kennedy was elected Senator from New York I saw him regularly on the Senate floor and worked with his assistants on legislation. In the summer of l967 I was back in the Senator’s Idaho office when Kennedy came to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation exploring the rise of suicides among Native Americans.
I can still see him walking alone along the pavement at the Pocatello Airport, the same solitary image as would later become a famous photo taken in rural Oregon shortly before his death.
Surely something died in all of us of that generation as both Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King left us in quick succession.
So last night that little girl who was walking down Connecticut Avenue on November 22, l963, told us, “I have never had someone inspire me the way people tell me my father inspired the, but I do now: Barack Obama.” Caroline Kennedy spoke for many of us: all these years later we have a second chance.
I can add little to what you’ve already heard or seen about Senator Kennedy’s appearance except reflect on why it meant a lot to me.
A candidate for public office in Idaho will run as far away from Ted Kennedy as possible. He’s been the favorite whipping boy of Republicans for three decades, always good for a scurulous joke at his expense. I’ve not made a habit of telling folks I used to work for Ted Kennedy
In the late l970’s, I was staff director for energy sat the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress and Kennedy was my chairman. He controlled the position, interviewed me and put me to work on New England energy issue as well. With three young kids I needed a job and persuaded him I could learn something about energy.
Early on I was asked to meet him in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and fly to Boston for some hearings. We barely knew each other yet as small plane piercing the black sky he wanted to wanted to talk about the loss of his brothers and of the tragedy at Chappaquitick. I listened, spellbound and tongue-tied.
I spent many early mornings in briefings at his home and staged hearings which essentially presented an alternative to “Moral Equivalent of War” energy plan of President Jimmy Carter. Had his conservation-based, job-creating, alternative-energy plan from 1978 been adopted, even in part, we wouldn’t be in the fix we are today.
Kennedy had a reputation of surrounding himself with the brightest staff and giving them unusual freedom to craft positions within his broad philosophy. He tried to accomplish so much and was so tightly scheduled that to work for him was to live under constant pressure.
But then the greatest pressure was that which he placed on himself. It showed when he ran unsuccessfully for president a couple years later.
What was experienced last night was not nostalgia for deceased Kennedys, which can be easily dismissed by those who are too young or those who never cared for them in the first place. This was not, however, simply about the distant past.
The Kennedy who was honored last night is a man beloved by his Senate colleagues, Orrin Hatch and John McCain among them. He is honored not just for his lion heart or his stirring words in times past but for his work as a public servant for more than four decades. This was the Lifetime Achievement Award, the Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, John Wayne moment.
Kennedy is the longest serving Senator in American history, a juggler of scores of issues and, as I can testify, a legendary workhorse. The specific cause may be cancer but another diagnosis might be that he has worn himself out in service.
He is also a kind and caring man.
From the video of his life shown before his speech, I take away the story of the many parents of fallen soldiers whom Kennedy consoled. “I can still remember where I was when mom and dad heard my brother Joe had been killed in the war,” he would tell them.
Arnold Toynbee wrote that “history is not just one damn thing after another” but when it came to speeches, it began to feel something like that yesterday. And it was only day one.
But things picked up with Jesse Jackson, Jr., the thoughtful and convincing praise of Obama by former 30-year Congressman Jim Leach and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. In between was the big band with big voice singers blazing away at stage right. Folks sure can dance when they’re on camera. So were Rickie and I up in the rafters.
And then came Teddy and Michelle. It is hard to imagine how tonight or tomorrow could top that.