The Bigger Picture
Published on September 10th in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Today I want to pick up where I left off last week and my discussion of the role that Ted Kennedy’s grandfathers played in his political education.
Whereas John and Robert Kennedy possessed formidable oratorical skills and relished political campaigning like their maternal grandfather, Honey Fitz, Ted was more like his grandfather P.J. While Ted also had excellent oratorical skills, he was much more comfortable dealing with people and politicians alike on a one to one basis than he was making lofty and inspiring speeches to crowds of supporters. His grandfathers schooled young Ted in the art of shaking hands and never forgetting a face but also taught him to remember he had a duty and responsibility to help those less fortunate than himself.
But it wasn’t until after he lost the 1980 Democratic Presidential nomination to President Jimmy Carter, that Ted Kennedy’s considerable talents as an able politician and true public servant became apparent. Ted Kennedy recruited and hired the best and brightest people for his legislative staff and they wanted to work for him because he also had a reputation for working with his political opponents to get things done. The list of Ted’s former staff members who serve in government reads like a Who’s Who of public servants from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to Obama Presidential advisors like Melody Barnes, President Obama's top domestic policy adviser and White House Counsel Gregory Craig, with nary a whiff of scandal touching any of Ted’s staffers.
But the real mark of Ted Kennedy as a man and as a true public servant was his common touch and willingness to always help those less fortunate than he. Most of the 70,000 people who stood in line for hours last week to say goodbye to him at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Cambridge Massachusetts, were just ordinary people whose lives Ted had touched and enriched during his public life.
Among them was a man named Jud Fokum, a native of Cameroon who had once asked Ted for assistance while he was a student in the US. Jud’s dilemma was that his US college tuition and living expenses were tied up in red tape back in Cameroon, so he asked if Senator Ted Kennedy would be willing to help him even though he wasn’t a US citizen or a Massachusetts voter. A few days later, after Ted Kennedy had placed a phone call to the President of Cameroon, Jud received his long delayed university funds.
Imagine that, a wealthy and powerful politician taking the time to help someone, in this case a foreign national, anonymously and with absolutely no tangible political or financial benefit for himself in doing so. Jud Fokum’s story is only one of the hundreds about Ted Kennedy that I personally know of and rest assured there are thousands more like it that I haven’t heard or that the general public will never know about.
While I was opposed to more of Ted Kennedy’s political positions than I ever favoured, much like John McCain I have always regarded him as one of the most able politicians and admirable men ever elected to political office in America. But more than that, Ted Kennedy was also one of the most honorable and giving persons I have ever known. He had his faults and he made a lot of mistakes during the course of his lifetime, but then who of us doesn’t have some faults or hasn’t made any number of mistakes?
Getting his sons elected President was important to Joe Kennedy because of what he believed election to this office would mean for his sons, but also because of what their election would mean to him, his family and the general public’s image of his family. His son John was elected President and Robert could very well have also been elected but for his untimely assassination during his first Presidential campaign. But I am of the opinion that the most important legacy for the Kennedy family was the type of life that was led by the only son of Joe who was soundly defeated the one time he ran for US President.
Ted Kennedy accepted this defeat with grace and dignity and then went on to have a decidedly positive impact on the lives of millions of Americans. During the course of his 47 years as a legislator, Ted Kennedy introduced 2,500 bills and saw more than 550 of them enacted into law. Nor was he content to just get his name on a law and then move on to new legislation. He was always open to revisiting laws he had already passed and revising or improving them because he believed that lasting progress only comes in half steps. He spent his life fighting for universal healthcare and although he didn’t accomplish this goal he was able to make some headway with his program for pregnant women and new mothers that now covers 8.7 million working class women and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which now covers more than 7 million children.
As for the Kennedy family legacy, as the sole surviving male, Ted served as the family’s patriarch and as a surrogate father to his fatherless nieces and nephews for over 40 years. The fact that virtually all of Joe Kennedy’s 30 grandchildren are currently involved in some form of public service work is both a reflection of the example Ted set as the Kennedy family’s patriarch and the values he helped instill in those grandchildren. That Ted Kennedy’s funeral attracted the kind of media attention that only attends those who have served as America’s President is a testament to Ted’s life of service to those less fortunate than him. I will end this column with a limerick I wrote about Ted;
The Kennedy children numbered one less than ten,
Their parents instilled a duty to serve in them.
But of all of their children who answered this call,
Ted’s service to others was the greatest of all.