Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Reluctant Torch Bearer

Today would have marked the ninety-first birthday of our thirty-fifth president. Ninety-one years ago in Brookline, Massachusetts, Joseph and Rose Kennedy welcomed their second son, Jack.

This time of year usually marks the hope that was born that May afternoon; the hope that died, with Jack's brother Bobby, on June 6, 1968 in Los Angeles; or, the national sigh we all endured with the passing of Jackie Kennedy fourteen years ago this month when John Jr. solemnly announced to the press and the world that his mother had passed, but this year we face a stunning new realization as a nation that has watched, admired, and loved the Kennedys. We face the realization that the man we have looked to for guidance in our most troubled times as a nation, the man we have watched demolish his political opponents on and off the Senate floor, and the man we have revered since that dark November day he followed the caisson that carried his brother to Arlington one final time, will not carry us through the twenty-first century.

It is not the picture of Ted Kennedy on a sailboat that lingers foremost in my mind. It is not the powerful photo of Jack, Bobby, and Ted at Hyannis Port in 1960 that reminds me of Ted's position and importance in the Kennedy family. It is the picture of Ted, grief-stricken, in pin striped pants, walking next to Bobby as the nation mourned with him the loss of his brother. It wasn't that dark day in November that Ted took the torch, the torch that he now carries, but it was that dark day in November when the nation took notice of a young man with a promising future and an ability to lead those most unlikely to follow.

In 1950, Jack Kennedy made a rare and extemporaneous comment about his sister, he stated: "I guess there will always be Rosemary." Rosemary, the disabled sister of President Kennedy, underwent a fairly common procedure for people with noticeable emotional disturbances in the fifties and was institutionalized shortly there after. Perhaps President Kennedy was referring to the loss of his older brother Joe and his sister Kathleen, but what strikes me most about his comment is that his general ambivalence about Rosemary is an ambivalence we have shared as a nation for Ted. We have taken for granted the senior senator from Massachusetts, assuming at times that he would always be here to lead our country and our party as he has so capably since his entrance in the U.S. Senate four decades ago.

It is a bit unnerving the way most are talking about Ted Kennedy as if he is already gone. He is embarking on the greatest battle of his life, but he is still with us. What if Ted had said to this nation following Bobby's death that he was profoundly sorry, he was thankful for the outpouring of support from a heartbroken nation, but he could not carry the torch? Despite his reluctance, did he bow out and leave us to find our own way through the 1968 Democratic Convention, Vietnam, Watergate, and the myriad of Kennedy tragedies we have held our breath through over the years? No. Despite his reluctance he picked up the torch, carrying it, along with this nation, forward. And so shall we. We will stand by Ted Kennedy through this battle as we have through the many other battled, both personal and political. We will continue to hold this man in highest regard for his voting record, public service, and genuine love for our country.

This may be Senator Kennedy's last battle, but it will not be his legacy.

From the brilliant Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: "Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. Must have been shattering. Stamped into one's memory. And yet, I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points on the compass, there's only one direction. And time is it's only measure."

Unfortunately, many of us have learned about death and grief from the Kennedy family. We have confronted mortality head on in the darkest of times and the most earth shattering moments of twentieth century American history beside the Kennedys. Fortunately, many of us have also learned about life and service from the Kennedys. May that be the greatest legacy of our reluctant torch bearer.

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