When I was growing up, I had a set of World Book Encyclopedias sitting on a bookcase in my bedroom. (For my younger readers, an encyclopedia is like wikipedia only in book form and perhaps more accurate if not as up-to-date.) My set was only slightly out of date, listing our current president as Gerald Ford (which isn't that big of a deal when you remember that I would have been reading that during the Carter and early Reagan years). I spent many hours of my childhood sprawled on the floor of my bedroom (with its Raggedy Ann and Andy wallpaper) pouring over the pages in these volumes. I particularly loved reading passages that dealt with American history and politics (SHOCKER!). I would often keep the P volume open to the pages listing all of our presidents so that I could look up each president and read about his life. I will never forget the day when I read the story of John F. Kennedy. I can remember crying when I read about his assassination and saw the pictures of young John John saluting his father's coffin. I then turned the page and read the story of his brother Robert. I was inconsolable with sadness at their deaths, deaths which had happened more than a decade before my reading of it. I formed a real emotional connection that afternoon with John and Bobby and the entire Kennedy family. I often wonder if that was my first real step towards becoming a Democrat.
Shortly after reading those passages, I can remember spending a Saturday morning reading the paper with my dad. Our local paper had a pull-out section in the Saturday paper for kids called "The Mini Page" (it still has it, by the way), so my dad would read the "big" paper and I would read the little one. That particular day, the Mini Page was devoted the upcoming primaries of 1980. I was interested to see that John Connolly, whose name I remembered as being one of the people in the car with JFK when he was shot, was running for president as well as some guy named Ronald Reagan. I turned the page to read a little about the Democratic challengers to President Carter. I gasped when I read one of the names.
"DAD!" I exclaimed. "President Kennedy's brother is running for president!"
"Yes, I know," my father replied.
"That is so cool! Are you going to vote for him?"
"Um, no." My father went on to explain that Ted Kennedy was a Democrat and that he, my dad, was a Republican. He also said some disparaging things about Ted Kennedy and some woman in a car accident, but I ignored that and went to find my mom.
"Mom, President Kennedy's brother is running for president! Please vote for him! PLEASE!!"
This plea also fell on deaf ears. Seriously, my parents were real political disappointments for me -- as I'm sure I was for them in that moment when they surely realized that they had somehow created a liberal Democrat who would spend the next 30 years idolizing the man who had the cojones to take on a sitting President, a man who would become a powerful symbol for both liberalism and bi-partisanship.
I woke up this morning and turned on CNN, and that's how I found out the news that Ted Kennedy died last night a year to the day from his inspiring address to the Democratic National Convention. It was a day we all knew was coming ever since he was diagnosed with a brain tumor a little more than a year ago. And yet I found myself sitting on my bed and crying, filled with the same grief that filled that little girl who read about the deaths of his older brothers. My grief, though, was also filled with a real sense of what we, as a nation, were losing, for the adult who mourns Ted Kennedy understands just what this man has meant to our country and our political system for the 46 years he has served us in the Senate.
Think just about that -- 46 years. That's longer than a lot of us have been alive. He spent those 46 years, though, serving with passion and vigor. Despite the fact that he was a man of great wealth, he championed those of us who weren't so fortunate as he worked in those years to champion civil rights, education, and health care. His fight for those causes (among many) made him a punching bag for conservatives, a rallying cry and exemplar of all that was wrong with the liberal movement. What those cries often failed to appreciate is what a model of bi-partisanship Ted Kennedy was. As faithful as he was to the party, he also understood that he was elected not to serve the Democratic party but to serve the American people. He crossed the aisle to broker deals. He brought a spirit of compromise and unity to sometimes divisive issues. In short, he was a model of what a Senator SHOULD be -- thoughtful, passionate, and willing to fight for those who can't fight for themselves.
This morning, I mourn the man who rose above the scandals, who forged a legacy of his own, who emerged from the shadows of two mighty towers, and who showed us what true service is. Good night, Lion. Sleep in peace.