Ted Kennedy: Not a Life Lived Large, but the Largeness of Life

The written responses to Ted Kennedy’s life – from newspaper obits and considerations to blog posts and tweets – have spanned a range. They’ve produced some good writing too.

From James Fallows at The Atlantic:

The most impressive and winning aspect of his personality was the way he kept on going, with good humor, despite defeats and tragedies of all sorts and vanished ambitions. With his physical bulk he made me think of some big, proud, beautiful animal — a bull in the ring with lances hanging out of its neck, a lion or elephant that has been tattered or wounded but not brought down. As everyone has noted, his most impressive and dignified period was after he realized he would never be president but would still bring campaign-scale passion and charisma (overused term, but right in this case)  to causes he cared about….

A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life — the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick — but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul. And his big, open heart. A powerful, brave, often-wounded animal at last brought down.

From John M. Broder’s New York Times obit:

He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.

And then, of course, there have been the dissenters, less enamored of the redemptive tale, for whom Kennedy’s privileged life, his weaknesses of nature, the central sin of Chappaquiddick, and the politics themselves bore a hole to somewhere far from heaven out from which he could never be raised. Most extreme were the Andrew Breitbarts, people whose idea of political contestation is removed from the vulgar nature and crude insult of frat-jockery only in that they now persuade themselves they engage in the serious work of grownups. Grant could raise his hat to Lee at Appomattox, but for Breitbart an imperfect fellow citizen with a lifetime of public service, but different views on health care and the minimum wage, remained, upon his death, a “pile of human excrement.”

It may be that the first nobility of the truly good people who pursue a public life lies in the good they pursue for all. Surely the second is that they accept to live in a world broad in the array of its strong opinion but narrow in the range of its human empathy. The political fray, we are always told, and can clearly see if we watch at all, is not for the weak of heart or stomach, or those who are prone to cut. But neither is real war, and many a warrior has felt the human nature of his enemy even as he killed him. The shame of Achilles was not in that he slew Hector, but that he disgraced him.

When I teach novice students of literature, the very first tendency invariably to be dealt with is their eagerness to judge. All the grand display of character weakness for review in the great narratives of our cultures – the committed and omitted sins, the violence, the infidelities, the lies and mental reservations – occur to the students at first as offered to us only for the comforts of our condemnation. Somehow – and we can all speculate how – they naively perceive the flaws of others as they have been told in story by writers of talent as Sunday school sermons of the wrong life, without regard to the grays of their own matter.

The life of literature, however (not the academic study of it, in which, as the modern joke goes, Emma Bovary is “just another trope”) offers up a more expansive vision, of our human failings, a sharper view of our surprising graces. This kind of insight might inform our public life. What true value would literature have if it couldn’t actually deepen our humanity – just as religion does at its best? And, of course, there are people who enter that life who are schooled in the “humanities” in their truest sense. But a lot of people who participate in public life – from loud town meetings to quiet legislative chambers – have fled those fields of understanding and are not seeking such insights, and all the fighting ends up fitting them with protective armor, including visors, so they might not be truly touched in the melee.

So we end up distorting the measure of man, and woman. Public figures who pretend to more in their service than the common and the functional – those who reach for greatness – begin in our imagination with unsoiled souls they can never maintain. A Martin Luther King Jr. is discovered to have perhaps plagiarized elements of his doctoral dissertation, and desired women other than his wife, and those who wished him ill to begin, pygmies in the comparison, reach quickly for the rope with which to topple him. In contrast, the seventeenth century French essayist Jean de La Bruyère observed, “The nearer we approach great men, the clearer we see that they are men.” There are many variations on this idea from many sources, the most routinely offered being “No man is a hero to his valet.” Less well known is the follow up: “This is not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.” What we miss in the hypocritical insistence on saintliness is that the achievement of a King is all the greater in that, yes, he was human, just a man, a frail vessel like all around him – and still he did what he did.

Even before the moving eulogies of yesterday – Ted Kennedy Jr., President Obama, more human and filled with emotion than we have ever seen him – I had watched the memorial at the Kennedy School of Government the night before. But I had missed some, and so I caught up with some of what I missed online. I began to watch the video of Joe Kennedy III’s testament of love to his uncle, of the senator’s indomitable spirit, but my connection was slow. Not to waste time I began to read in other windows as the stream stopped and started. I found Joyce Carol Oates’s piece in England’s Guardian newspaper, an article with themes not unlike those here. She pursues the theme of the “fortunate fall,” as we encounter it, for instance, in Conrad’s Lord Jim, in which Jim spends his life attempting to expiate a great sin.

Oates, of course, some years ago, wrote a fictionalized version of the Chappaquiddick incident, and she does not skimp, in the Guardian, in her brute presentation of what occurred and of how Mary Jo Kopechne died. Whenever the video stream restarted, I would quickly return to it before its stopping again. When it did stop, I would return to reading Oates. What I experienced, then, back and forth, many times, was a kind of impromptu moment of whole and simultaneous vision, a balancing of a life: the worst a man had ever done unfolding in time beside the stories of his virtues. Or as the Roman Triumph had it, the conquering hero rode through the city on a chariot, hailed by the citizens, a slave holding a laurel crown above his head and murmuring in his ear, “Memento homo” – “Remember, you are mortal.”

I read that a week before he died, the family took Ted Kennedy for a final sailboat ride. On a route and in a location that evaded prying eyes and paparazzi, they brought him to the boat, lifted him up in his wheel chair, and set sail, as he had done so many times, into the Atlantic waters off Cape Cod. In art, one has to choose, one gets to, where to end a life. Kennedy lived a while longer, and I don’t know, but it may be that little followed in those final days but drugged insensibility or unconsciousness. I have seen this twice myself.

So I imagine Kennedy’s chair set toward the bow, his face into the wind. He is weak and death is near. He is surrounded, as some fortunate among us are, by family and love – as Mary Jo Kopechne was not. The white caps of the steel gray waters heave. The dome of sky is marbled with ocean cumulus. The boat sails finely over the sea. And the visions come. The parents. The brothers. The shallow, muddy waters. The thread of loss through a lifetime. The great labors, great achievements. The bonhomie. Late love. Faith. Loyalty. The imperfect self. The ebbing tide.

Soon, because I make it so, and it might have been, the sound begins to fade. The voices of those around him recede into a trickle, into nothing. His eyes rest on the seam of sea and sky and on the infinite where they meet. Over his face, in time, has come not a smile, but a final, complete, and ultimate recognition. The wind flits across his cheeks. It flaps in the sails.


11 thoughts on “Ted Kennedy: Not a Life Lived Large, but the Largeness of Life

  1. AJA

    Hard not to succumb to the temptation, so here goes: It would appear as though you have been assigned your very own wing nut troll! I think this means you have actually achieved some level of status and recognition, if they have deemed it important to assign you your own personal rebut-everything-defend-bush/cheney-using-non-sequitor-cut-and-paste-writing troll. (And of course by they, I mean the re-manifestations of the voices on Fox Noise/Limbaugh reverberating in her one track mind).

    Ah, there. Felt good to get that out.


  2. Thank you for your thoughts and emotion-filled serenade to those Americans who were personally touched by Mr. Kennedy’s humanity which, by the way, every man and woman possesses in life and death. Of open mind and a heart-felt and self-deprecating search for the actual light in the truth, I must admit that your serenade, while exquisitely written, fell on deaf ears. Mr. Edward Kennedy was handed and bathed in entitlement by family, far-left liberal supporters, and those who did not support most of his political ideologies in the form of salary and perks through taxation. Most everyone endures hardship in one way or another. Ted Kennedy was not burdened by rationed health care, disconnect notices for power, water, and phone. The blessed long life this Kennedy lived was that of entitlement. Lastly, given his roller coaster of a personal life which was mostly conveniently shielded by the liberal media and strangely never served any jail time, this man lived a pampered life. God bless Edward Kennedy and may him and most all men and women who finally die rest in peace – but for Kennedy – no more and no less.

  3. While it’s clear you attempt to denigrate my views, we’re making some progress as it appears you’ve backed away from your initial stance of lofty praise for Edward Kennedy. I happen to agree with you that in Macbeth, Shakespeare presented the man while in my essay, I present a cartoon. Of course I wasn’t writing a play, and no one – certainly not me – can come close to Shakespeare’s brilliance. That’s why, centuries after his death, he remains at the center of the Western Canon. Also true is that for several decades, I’ve seen Ted Kennedy as a cartoonish figure – an obese, heavy-jowled, growler who had no moral reservations when it came to lying about and smearing the reputations of his betters — good and decent men like Judge Robert Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. Having political differences with others isn’t a license to slander and libel. He certainly was the “Lion of the Senate” — the cowardly lion.

    As for Andrew Breibart’s remarks, although I’m a fan of his, I haven’t read them in context. I presume that they were made in the heat of anger – the anger that came when the media spent days eulogizing Kennedy as a heroic figure. I agree very much with Mark Steyn’s sentiments expressed in a National Review article “Airbrushing Out Mary Jo Kopechne”.

    As for Dick Cheney, I understand that he is curently under fire from the left because he and not former President Bush has been outspoken in his opposition to several of Mr. Obama’s policies. In a recent interview – with characteristic frankness – Cheney admitted that if it had been his choice to make, he’d have used military force against Iran and that was his advice to President Bush. He further stated that he was alone in his opinion, indirectly telling us that Robert Gates, who remains as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, was opposed.

    Blaming Dick Cheney for torture and comparing him to Pinochet serves no serious purpose since Cheney had no authority to make the decision to use waterboarding. It brings much heat and flame to a discussion, but extinguishes any light. Without getting into all the ancillary issues surrounding the topic I’ll just say that I wonder if you know that the CIA employees given this responsibility all had to be waterboarded themselves as part of their training. President Bush received authorization from the Office of Legal Council, and therefore, was acting completely within his constutional authority.

    Again, I’ll remind you of FDR’s secretly entering the US into a treaty with his Lend-Lease Agreement. FDR did this in spite of the fact that the US was not at war and it was clearly an unconstitutional act. Once we did go to war, FDR’s actions became even more outragous as he then rounded up all American citizens of Japanese heritage and placed them in internment camps for the duration. Anyone truly serious about rogue presidents abusing their executive authority would be focusing their time and energies on correcting FDR’s legacy. They wouldn’t have an argument with President Bush.

  4. Well. I’m not going to defend Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. That is hardly the point and wasn’t mine. It’s what we make of him after, and the human complexity of balancing the two. You, however, here make my point in PinoCheney about most political analogies. No one not already committed to condemn Kennedy would be the least persuaded by your analogy. Where is Lady Macbeth? Where is Macbeth’s ambivalence? Shakespeare gives us a man; you offer a cartoon. It is little disputed that before his brothers’ deaths, Ted had no great ambition beyond, what, indeed, was pretty much given to him. His ambition was a burden he appeared to take up out of obligation and then of guilt. And you really wish to criticize the nature of his military service after rushing to Cheney’s defense, or the callowness of a career constructed out of the influence and wealth of family and friends after Bush?

    You write, “Kennedy’s subsequent career … would “rescue the drowning” and prevent anyone from enduring serious consequences of their intemperance and libertinism.” It’s as if when Kennedy said of Reagan that he “must love poor people because he’s creating so many more of them,” he wasn’t making a pointed joke but actually believed, literally, what he had said. The fatuousness of your characterization is so apparent. You reveal yourself. You will credit him nothing.

    Among the multitudes of Shakespeare’s talents was that he did not sketch his characters on cardboard. What, in contrast, is your one-dimensional drawing but a more elevated blast of sound and fury signifying, in the manner of Breitbart, the same “pile of human excrement”?

  5. Edward Kennedy: The Macbeth of Our Era

    The study of literature, Shakespeare in particular, reminds us that all men are flawed; that evil exists in all human hearts. The Shakespearean character Edward Kennedy most resembed was Macbeth. In reading Macbeth, we learn that without the restraints of moral inhibitions, ambition rapidly becomes evil. Macbeth is no ordinary villain – no Manson-style psychopath. Rather, he is an entirely ordinary man, endowed with a nature no better or worse than any other, which is why he remains so chilling an example for the rest of us.

    Like Macbeth, Ted Kennedy was born into wealth and aristocracy and just like Macbeth, Kennedy never suffered victimhood or injustice. Indeed, quite the opposite as many a time in his early years he escaped facing the consequences for his actions that most ordinary citizens routinely must face. And here, I’m referring to his expulsion from college, numerous DWI offenses, and having a father with the wealth and political clout to spare young Ted service in Korea. One and a half million other young Americans didn’t have those advantages and 37,000 were killed and over 100,000 wounded. Thanks to Old Joe Kennedy, young Ted had the normal 4-year term of duty reduced to just two, and served his time in gay Paree, frittering away his days.

    Macbeth at least recognized that he had no extenuating circumstances that would not excuse, but plausibly explain his moral deformity when he says, “I have no spur to prick the side of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself. ” Ted Kennedy’s vaulting ambition was to achieve the ultimate in power – the presidency. His role in causing the death of Mary Jo Kopechne was “the prick in his side”, that prevented him from achieving his objective. What it couldn’t prevent was his ongoing lust for power and his resentment over the fact that due to his own choice — his amoral conduct that fateful night — his was a lust that could never be fully satisfied.

    Regarding the circumstances of Kopechne’s death, let’s be honest. Ted Kennedy escaped the vehicle he had driven off a bridge into a deep pond. Mary Jo was alive, trapped in an air bubble in an upside-down oldsmobile. Instead of calling 9-1-1, Ted Kennedy called political advisors who supposedly told him to report the accident immediately. Instead, Ted Kennedy went to bed and in the morning, called his attorney. Since Joe Kennedy’s wealth paid the Kopechne family an undisclosed amount of money not to “make a fuss”, many of the details will never be fully known. What is known is that Mary Jo Kopechne remained alive in the vehicle for quite some time using her fingernails to claw through the upholstery of the overturned vehicle in desperation. Some reports have stated she could have lived approximately 5 hours before drowning.

    This was no run-of-the-mill ordinary and tragic DWI death. This was a case where Edward Kennedy almost certainly knew Mary Jo Kopechne was alive and in order to save his career, he deliberately chose to let her die. His lust for power so great that basic human decency and compassion ceased to exist.

    Like Macbeth, Kennedy was led to evil through the path of unbridled ambition. And like Macbeth after his murder of Duncan, Kennedy understood that he had crossed a line — a boundary –that deprives individuals of their full humanity. Macbeth understood that the commission of evils so great as his were irredeemable, and thus, he came to envy his own victims. He said, “Better to be with the dead whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ectasy.”

    Kennedy’s subsequent career looks a great deal like Macbeth’s tortured mind of lying in restless ecstasy as he went on a never-ending battle to create a utopian society that would “rescue the drowning” and prevent anyone from enduring serious consequences of their intemperance and libertinism.

    The brilliance of Shakespeare lies in his understanding of human nature and continues to exist today as we witness Shakespearean characters like Macbeth’s reincarnation in the person of Edward Kennedy.

    Deborah Fetkovich

  6. Thank you, thank you for these words – that remind me of the redemptive truth of a human life – that we can make mistakes and not continue to be defined by them. Admist the short, trite, ill-considered words that have permeated discourse – this is the considered thought, the tell-it slant that lights our way to imperfection, greyness, neither/nor not either/or.

  7. Wonderful, wonderful tribute. Thank you.

    Ted Kennedy is all the more admirable to me for having redeemed himself, willingly, knowingly and selflessly. Very much the sinner who turns into saint.

    I had known for awhile that he was very present and hands-on with constituents. I also knew–as we all did– he was a surrogate father to a handful of fatherless children in his family.

    But in both cases, I had no idea to what extent he gave– because these were not things he broadcasted or allowed to be broadcast by others on his behalf. There is a humility in that.

    It’s also nice to know that despite our schisms and political cynicism–we Americans still feel deeply about our political heroes.

    1. Suzanne, I agree with all you say. It was a powerfully moving past few days.

      On another note, to respond to an earlier question of yours, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980) the court found for the Sioux Nations in the taking of the Black Hills of South Dakota. However the award was financial, and what the Sioux wanted, and still want, is not the money, but the land. They turned the award down so as not to prejudice their continuing claims on the land. The money is being held in yet another trust. How is that for cultures completely foreign to each other?

  8. AJA

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of writing and tribute. I weep for the discourse and comments pervading the airwaves. And sometimes it feels like I can’t shut out the noise and the vile long enough to catch breath and experience original thoughts and feelings. Your piece above too made me weep. But it was for its clarity and artistry, and most importantly for its ability to open a window from which to poke out my head and temporarily escape the suffocating acrid smoke of the crazy. And to allow me to mourn a great man and a great era.

    Best, Naomi.

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