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Remembering Teddy Kennedy

By O. Max Gardner III

I was very fortunate to have personally known three of Joe Kennedy’s sons. I first met Senator John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy at a Washington cocktail party in 1957. My late Uncle was a Washington lobbyist and a strong old yellow-dog Democrat. The party was at his home at 2828 Albemarle Avenue, NW, in DC, adjacent to Rock Creek Park. My Uncle Ralph was later the Chairman of President Kennedy’s first post-inaugural birthday party, which I had the honor to attend. I actually worked in the Kennedy White House that entire summer with my Uncle as he organized the event. And, yes, this was the event that featured Marilyn Monroe and her “Happy Birthday Mr. President” song.

President Kennedy and especially Bobby had a rough and tough type of attitude and were not that good about making the deals necessary to make things work in Washington. I remember that my Uncle would say he had a hard time trusting Bobby. Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, was a person known to keep his word. A deal was a deal with Teddy. Ted KennedyTeddy also had a special spirit about him and loved to engage people and seemed to live to make the political compromise. The give and take of the negotiation process fit him like a warm glove in the winter. He would religiously call friends and foes when good and bad things happened to them or to members of their families, staff, etc. A letter, a short note, a telephone call, a brief comment, a smile and a wink, etc., was always Teddy’s style. I still have several notes he sent me over the years.

The Irish and I mean the true Irish seem to possess a special joy for life and people and love to make deals and especially to tell absolutely wicked stories about the deals they made and especially the ones they missed and just about anything else under the sun. Of all the three Kennedy sons I knew, Ted Kennedy was the Kennedy closest to that true Irish spirit. The other brothers were different – all of them heroes in one way or the other, all dying young. Teddy was the ultimate survivor, not a hero, and not so much a romantic as the one who carried the load. And he carried a might heavy load for his family, for himself, and for the political legacy of the Kennedy family. Whether you loved him or hated him, he did a lot of “heavy lifting” for all of us in the US Senate.

And, I do not want to sugarcoat Teddy’s lack of heroism. Forty summers ago, on a warm might, the car he was driving on Martha’s Vineyard skidded off the bridge into 8 feet of water at Chappaquiddick. The passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked in Bobby’s presidential campaign, drowned in the car. Kennedy later called his decision to swim to safety and abandon the scene “indefensible”. He could have used the same term to characterize his own description of the incident. It was a tragedy for the Kopechne family and should have ended Teddy’s career and certainly doomed any realistic hope he ever had to become President.

But, in my view the true measure of Ted Kennedy is that he found redemption from Chappaquiddick in his work in the Senate. He survived a tragedy of his own making that would have unmade any other politician. He understood how the Senate is supposed to work and he made it work. He made his deals and compromised positions and passed some of the most progressive legislation of the past 30 years.

We have all made our share of mistakes in this life. The longer we live the more we make. The true test of a man or woman is what they do with themselves after the mistakes. What do they do after they have been knocked down? How do they get up and what do they do when they are back on their feet? Ted Kennedy, with a gilded name in politics and the weight of one family tragedy after another, was able to overcome it all, to turn the boat around, and to run it hard with the wind in his face for the last 30 years. In this life, all of us are broken down more than once. A few of us are able to turn these breaks into positive events. Many more of us never get over them at all. Teddy Kennedy was one of those rare individuals who was able to overcome a litany of rotten fate, bad luck, bad judgment, and errors of character to remold himself into one of our greatest United States Senators. We have lost the ultimate survivor and the consummate deal maker when we needed him the most.

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