In a way, I now realize, I have always subconsciously considered Ted Kennedy to be immortal. I remember the first time I saw him in person. It was the summer of 1994 and I was at the Yankee Homecoming Parade in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a few miles from where I grew up.
The senator was at the time locked in a tough re-election bid against a little-known businessman named Mitt Romney. From my perch on the sidewalk I heard the crowd down the street start to cheer. And then I saw him. The famous face, the wavy hair, the stylish polo shirt. And then I heard the voice – that inimitable sound.
He bounded down the street with his beautiful new wife Vicki in tow, shaking hands and greeting the crowds in that uniquely Kennedy way. For a teenage news junkie like me, shaking the hand of the man whom I had read about and watched on television for my entire life was a thrill beyond words. He was one of the original political rock stars.
I would come to meet Senator Kennedy a half dozen or so times in the years between then and now, some because of my former job as a television news producer in Boston, others by chance. There was the time I was walking through Boston’s Back Bay with my mother and sister and we came upon the senator standing alone on the sidewalk outside his townhouse, soaking up the sun, waiting for his wife to join him.
He was, as always, incredibly gracious when we stopped to talk with him for a few minutes. He and Vicki were headed, he said, to one of his nephews’ soccer games. For the lone surviving son of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, family always came first. He would often arrive at interviews with a super-sized Kennedy entourage: his wife, his in-laws, his nephews, even his two Portuguese Water Dogs, Sunny and Splash.
For Massachusetts and the nation, he was a constant – there in the good times and the bad. My friend and mentor, the veteran Boston television anchor Chet Curtis, vividly recalls the moment in 1963 when as a young reporter in the Senate gallery he witnessed a staffer rush to Kennedy’s side and say, “Senator, your brother the president has been shot.” Three days later my grandparents and parents watched from Massachusetts as he marched behind his brother’s casket in Washington.
Five years after that they hung on every word as he eulogized his other brother in New York. And in 1980 the country watched as he unsuccessfully challenged President Carter for the Democratic nomination – a challenge that culminated with Kennedy’s stirring “Dream Shall Never Die” convention speech.
The Kennedys may belong to the nation, but Massachusetts natives have always felt that we have first dibs. The family that has been a fixture on the national landscape has been even more of a fixture on our local landscape – Senator Kennedy chief among them. We watched as he sailed with Jackie Onassis and her children on Nantucket Sound. We knew each year he would make a special appearance with his aging mother on the Hyannisport porch to celebrate her birthday. We saw him climb into a waiting Coast Guard helicopter when his nephew, John F. Kennedy, Jr., went missing in 1999.
We got chills, as a fellow intern and I admitted to each other in the summer of 2000, when he walked onto the Democratic National Convention stage to the Orleans hit, “You’re Still the One.” And perhaps my fondest personal memory: handing him a big piece of cake decorated with an American flag when he celebrated his 74th birthday.
The last time I saw Senator Kennedy in person was at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Though weakened by his illness, he nevertheless brought the house down. It was a moment I will never forget.
Ted Kennedy was, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea… or chowder, as he would probably prefer it be described. Indeed, he had his flaws. But even his harshest critics will acknowledge he was a tireless and effective senator for the people of Massachusetts.
Perhaps to no issue was he more dedicated than health care. Today Massachusetts is reeling from the news that Ted Kennedy’s fight for health care has come to an end.
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