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Ted Kennedy's America

By Ronald A. Cass

Shortly after John Kennedy's inauguration, a fictive account of a conversation between Richard Nixon and Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speech writer, made the rounds. According to the story, Nixon told Sorensen that there was one thing Kennedy said that he wished he had said. Sorensen asked whether it was the line starting with "Ask not what your country can do for you," and Nixon replied, "No, it was the one starting with 'I do solemnly swear.'"

Life for all of us is a mix of things we're proud of, things we're happy for, and things we wished had been different. The sad and unexpected news of Ted Kennedy's cancer provides a poignant reminder of our mortality and of the highs and lows in Kennedy's own life and the political life of a nation whose history for the last half century has been so closely intertwined with his own.

Ted Kennedy's career is a blend of two larger-than-life stories, one political, one personal. The political story starts where our fictional meeting does, with his brother's election to the presidency. As the youngest son of a political dynasty, little was expected of Ted, other than to follow in his older brothers' footsteps and help promote the family's aims. When JFK became only the second president elected while a sitting Senator, he had to resign his seat as the junior senator from Massachusetts. The family engineered an arrangement that installed someone they thought would be merely a bench-warmer to keep the seat safe until Ted turned 30 and was able to stand for election two years later. Ted won the Democratic nomination and the seat in 1962 and has represented his state in the Senate for 45 years now. During that time, no one has been more constantly and consistently in the public eye, for good and bad, and few have had a bigger impact on our political life.


As a conservative Republican who has been very public in my support of conservative principles (including writing many an op-ed skewering Senator Kennedy during the confirmation fights for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito and for circuit judges before that), I do not come to the subject of Ted Kennedy as a natural ally or fan. And as someone who spent 14 years as dean of a law school in Boston - the Kennedy family's backyard - I have developed a special resistance to the liberal infatuation with all things Kennedy.

Yet during my time in Boston, I also had occasion to observe a side of Senator Kennedy that doesn't get that much attention. Much of the alumni base of my school was devoted to Senator Kennedy, so it may not be surprising that he accepted my invitations to come speak to them and to students at the law school. Public officials routinely do such things. Senator Kennedy was gracious whenever he came to and spoke at these events. He displayed personal warmth and a sense of humor that was appreciated, and he said the requisite nice things about the dean as well. Again, all of this is within the norm for public officials, though Kennedy readily surpassed many on these margins.

Far more important, however, was what he did after the barbaric attacks of 9/11. I lost a very dear friend that day and afterward joined the board of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, an organization devoted to helping the families of 9/11 victims. Many public figures turned out for the larger events honoring the victims, but Ted Kennedy was the one who was most consistently available and anxious to help.

As Ted went around the room to talk with the survivors, he always had a kind word, something encouraging to say, a personal touch, a hug, a tear - and for everyone, he showed the emotion of someone who had coped with tragedy in his own life. Kennedy evinced genuine understanding of the families' hurt, their sorrow, their sense of senseless loss. He was never in a rush to leave, to get on to something more important. Ted knew that sharing the grief of others, forming a bond of those who have faced a pain that can only be salved with time and understanding, gives something precious to those whose lives are forever changed. He gave from the heart, to those in need. And he gave in that setting in a way few public officials could and fewer yet did.


Ted Kennedy's career - in and out of office - provides many targets for commentary. Liberals will extol his accomplishments on issues such as education, health care, and civil rights, issues he has helped make cornerstones of Democratic Party policy. Conservatives will note times he reached across party lines, but also recall Kennedy's shameful treatment of Bob Bork - a serious misrepresentation of a very accomplished jurist and part of what has pushed our judicial confirmation process into political quagmire. Some die-hard Kennedy haters will remind readers of Chappaquiddick. Many Senate colleagues - from both sides of the aisle - will speak of Kennedy's personification of an old-fashioned blend of back-slapping camaraderie, log-rolling and cajoling that sets a standard for how to succeed in the ultimate insiders' club.

Commentators with a view to history might note the timing of Kennedy's cancer. The surviving scion of this eminent political family just this winter passed the mantle of the Kennedys to a young protégé who at the time was in a tenuous battle for the Democrats' presidential nomination. In marked contrast to some better coifed, younger Democrats, Kennedy then threw himself into the contest with characteristic brio, captured best in the ubiquitous video of him singing "Guadalajara" in a style that substitutes enthusiasm for vocal talent. Tuesday, just after the news that Senator Kennedy has incurable cancer, Barack Obama clinched the majority of pledged delegates for the Democratic nomination.

Despite the inevitable political overtones, however, I would like to believe that most people will separate politics from the politician and be saddened that a fellow citizen faces a terrible disease. Just as Ted Kennedy could reach out to those in need, others should reach out to him today. Cancer doesn't know boundaries of race or class, or privilege or poverty, of creed or of politics. It can strike any of us at any time.

Ted Kennedy, in the face of almost constant family tragedy, has given dedicated service to his party, his state, and his nation for nearly half a century. In the America Ted Kennedy lives in today, it would be nice to know that all of us, regardless of our political views or ideological commitments, can feel genuine sympathy, that in the coming weeks we can all include Senator Kennedy, his wife Vicki, and his family in our hopes and our prayers. If he recovers - as we hope he will - we can return to our partisan corners and have at it once again.

Ronald A. Cass is Dean Emeritus of Boston University School of Law and Chairman of the Center for the Rule of Law.

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