A Lion Who Roared for the Least Fortunate

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published August 26, 2009, issue of September 04, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There was no reason back then, none at all, to suppose that Edward Moore Kennedy — Teddy — would one day be thought not merely a distinguished United States senator but one of the all-time greats. In 1962, at the ripe age of 30, one brother the incumbent president, another the nation’s attorney general, Ted put nothing but his last name before the voters of Massachusetts. As his opponent in the primary election that year, Edward McCormack, nephew of the long-time speaker of the House, acidly observed during the campaign, “If your name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke.” But the voters of Massachusetts evidently thought differently, and off Ted went to begin 47 years of service in the Senate.

His oldest brother, the one their father had hoped would one day be president, was killed in combat at the age of 29, when Ted was just 12. And then, in a span of seven gruesome years, from the time he arrived in the Senate through 1969, he lost both his older brothers (ages 46 and 43) to assassins, he himself came near death in an airplane crash that forced him into a hospital for six months, and then there was Chappaquiddick. These tragedies against a background of dissolution, of profligacy. Alcohol, women, an apparent lack of personal discipline. Here and there, a hint of what he might accomplish — a superb staff, an eloquent speech — but little more than that. A career, so it seemed, haunted by scandal and, truth to tell, by mediocrity.

Yet it has for some time now been clear that no public figure of our time more fully embodied the contradictions that make human life so limitless and so fascinating a puzzle. For though Kennedy lacked personal discipline, he brought compelling discipline to his work in the Senate — and to his role in the Kennedy family. This was so even before his stabilizing second marriage, in 1992, to Victoria Reggie. And by now, as we mourn his death, the simplest way to summarize what he accomplished in the Senate is to assert, without fear of contradiction, that no senator in the last century, through his own efforts, had as much impact on the way we live as he. His firm fingerprints are everywhere we turn — and most particularly, on laws and programs designed to reach out to the least among us.

Others will chronicle the evidence for so sweeping a statement; sweeping though it be, the evidence that supports it is overwhelming. But I want here to tell a rather different story, one that illuminates a quieter, more reflective aspect of the man. On the morning of the day before the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, Senator Kennedy called the White House to inquire whether it would be appropriate for him to bring to the funeral — he was among the many Americans, including President Clinton (“Shalom, chaver”) who attended the sad ceremony — some earth from Arlington National Cemetery. The answer was essentially a shrug: Who knows? Unadvised, the senator carried a shopping bag onto the plane, filled with earth he had himself dug the afternoon before from the graves of his two murdered brothers. And at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, after waiting for the crowd and the cameras to disperse, he dropped to his hands and knees, and gently placed that earth on the grave of the murdered prime minister.

No spin, no photo op; a man unreasonably familiar with bidding farewell to slain heroes, a man in mourning, quietly making tangible a miserable connection.

One woman had lingered when the crowd left. Seeing that the senator, his back still weakened from the plane crash decades earlier, was having difficulty rising, she approached and helped him to his feet. It was from her I heard the story. Though I never had reason to doubt its core truth, I know that such stories are often embellished as they are told and retold. So when, last year, I found myself standing next to the senator at a function in a private home, I decided to verify the details. It pleases me greatly that Senator Kennedy confirmed the particulars of the story.

There’s also this: Thucydides once was asked, “When will there be justice in Athens?” His reply: “There will be justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are.” Call it, if you will, not outrage but righteous indignation. Ted Kennedy would easily have been reelected time after time even had he been substantially less indignant, substantially more passive an advocate of social justice. Few of his constituents would have punished him had he chosen to be merely a foot soldier rather than an indefatigable champion of those who have been injured, one way or another. That was not the path he chose; he chose as he did out of authentic conviction.

Ted Kennedy was very far from sainthood, but sainthood, it turns out, is not a prerequisite for greatness. He started as a leopard; he finished as a lion, and his legacy’s a blessing.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.