The Lion at Rest
Ted Kennedy’s greatness lay in his surprisingly rigorous self-awareness.
Nearly 40 years ago, I came across a useful snapshot of the creative, chaotic, consequential life that Edward Kennedy lived in the public square. It was somewhere in the bowels of the Senate office building that Kennedy made his headquarters for 47 years–a two-office suite inhabited by two remarkable people. The first office I walked into was run by a young, up-and-coming politician and lawyer whom those of us condemned to follow national politics had first noticed in Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. On any given day, other pols and officeholders, favor-seekers, and would-be allies could be found in this lair, eager to do business with the man who even then was handling just about anything of a sensitive nature on Kennedy’s behalf: Paul Kirk.
Within another 20 years, Kirk would help arrange the senator’s divorce, play a role in the Democratic Party’s long march back from Reagan-era debacles, and then join his Republican counterpart, Frank Fahrenkopf, in a two-decade-plus reign staging the general election season’s presidential debates. In the end, the first true moment of comfort after Kennedy’s poignant death was the appointment of Kirk (by then the executor of his friend’s estate) to mind his Senate seat until a successor is elected.
In the office beyond Kirk’s sat Dale de Haan, a typically brilliant Kennedy hire from the then-fledgling human rights community and a person of remarkable intellect and diligence. He greeted a decidedly different kind of visitor: diplomats from all over the world, intelligence agents, human rights campaigners fresh from some torturer’s dungeons. De Haan ran one of Kennedy’s most important fiefdoms, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on refugees and immigration. This hitherto ignored unit turned out to be the mechanism that Kennedy used to oppose further escalation of the Vietnam War in 1967 and then move into opposition to the entire, mad enterprise. De Haan’s portfolio would eventually go global as he became one of the leaders in the office of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, whose work would richly earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.
Truth be told, there was nowhere in the Kennedy empire–from the mid-1960s right through last year–you couldn’t find workaholic geniuses toiling on the major questions of the day, most of them on their way to distinguished, high-profile careers. Part of the wonder surrounding what is easily the most significant legislative career in American history is that no matter which of these cubbyholes you stopped by over the years, you could pick up a thread that reached all the way back to the New Frontier and all the way forward to the present. Follow the threads that Kennedy directly dominated, from education and health care to immigration and income support, and the number of Americans directly affected easily surpasses 200 million, more than most presidents.
In his surprising, even stunning memoir completed just before his death this past summer, Kennedy hasn’t followed quite every thread; this is memoir, not autobiography. In 500 pages, however, he has managed to follow many of them, including the most complicated one of all–the tale of his own journey from privilege to power, from tragedy to tragedy to tragedy, and from wound to wound (more than one self-inflicted).
Introspection was never a Kennedy strength or habit, but True Compass has surprised and astonished those who knew him well. That includes me, a baby reporter in the late 1960s gleefully sucked into the vortex of Kennedy’s involvement in all the burning issues of his time. I dealt with him for 40 years in a happy evolution from quasi-student to willing accomplice on scores of causes (some hopeless, many successful) to something more personal; my real bias is that I never stopped being stunned by his work ethic, his relentlessness and diligence, not to mention his kindness. In the commercial-publishing trade there have been three similarly notable memoirs in recent years, each by a glass ceiling-shattering woman–Katherine Graham, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Madeleine Albright. Kennedy’s is their equal–another valuable contribution to understanding Americans of consequence who emerged after World War II.
The books all present an uncommonly thorough effort to understand or at least account for their emergence. In Kennedy’s case, I never got the impression that he thought his family’s size, clout, or wealth was unique or all that important to understanding him. He was hardly the only final child in a large family to play (in his words) catch-up to older siblings. In our conversations through the years, I did manage to sense the importance to him of his family’s closeness, its competitiveness, and the emphasis it put on relentless perseverance, all of which are prominent in his narrative and familiar to anyone with even a casual awareness of his life.
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