There are still some people who, when they pass, make us realize exactly how big they were in our own lives even though they were technically strangers to us and us to them. To borrow a little from Lloyd Bentsen in 1988… I never met Ted Kennedy, I never worked with Ted Kennedy… and I am never going to be Ted Kennedy. And yet, it seems that we all did know him. That sense of having somehow connected with the guy came to us from several different sources. There was of course the entire Kennedy clan and the Camelot vision; a royal family for a country that more often than not used the word “royalty” in advertising for fast food entrées. Any way you cut into that Kennedy thing, you still find something extraordinary. People relentlessly pointed out that the father, Joe, was rumored to have made some of his fortune running booze during Prohibition. It didn’t matter a whit. They were glorious, alive, vital… and they were ours. But John, Bobby, and Ted were human, and they were wealthy American males with access. So there were events that arguably met the criteria for “scandal.” One of these was a dark night for Ted Kennedy, and forever limited the potential reach of his power. Those that remember probably recall the whole thing quite clearly, but if you are younger… Ted was driving home late after a party with a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne. He was on roads he knew, but he shouldn’t have been driving. The car went off a small bridge, with enough water underneath it to pull the car down. Ted got out; Ms. Kopechne did not. And then for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, Kennedy waited 8 or more hours before notifying authorities about the event. The Chappaquiddick episode was horrible and unforgivable. But Ted Kennedy didn’t allow that night of shame to define the rest of his life… though a lot of us did define him by that. Instead, he poured himself into so many absolutely right and even righteous political agendas impacting education, children, families, and health care that he became the definition of what a Democratic senator does for his constituents. That’s the big difference between Chappaquiddick and something like South Carolina’s Mark “Cha Cha” Sanford. Ted Kennedy was a flawed man who could not stop achieving in service to America. Sanford is a putz who doesn’t understand himself or even what he wants to pretend to be. How does that difference matter? Perhaps because politics, the business of people getting into government, is predicated on the idea that humans are going to work together while aspiring to be their better selves. When we join service organizations to deliver meals to shut-ins or help neighborhood kids, we are working in an organized manner to make life better for others. Politics is us pointing our energies to do those things and more on the larger stage of government. Government may at any given time have a structuring that prevents it from doing the best job it can. Say, for example, a large wealthy western state that goes broke. But the people that run for office in government are, for the most part or at least at the beginning, trying to be their better selves in service to others. (In some things, I completely fail as a cynic.)We tend to forget that service angle because of late there have been so many who have proven that they just got in for themselves… or big oil. Politics may not be inherently noble, but I think one can find nobility in a political career. Put another way, one chooses to press harder on that better self. This is what I believe Edward M. Kennedy did. When his brothers became immortal giants after their untimely deaths, he had little choice but to pick up the ball or quit the game. The Kennedy men were carousers, playboys… make that list as long as you like. But, they were never quitters.We all carry our weights and burdens. The Kennedy family experienced heavy pain and deep loss. Their response, the women and the men, was to get out there to do and accomplish more. Regardless of anything else in the weave of the Kennedy legend, that service is a teachable moment. They knew and we knew about their other selves. Edward Kennedy kept the pressure up on his better self through personal health crisis, loss, and pain of every type. That’s a form of leadership, and because that leadership was in place and was steadfast we are now looking at an era of dynamic political possibilities and change after eight years of darkness and mediocrity. Throughout the memorial services last weekend, it was clear what the family wanted as a legacy: The words “health care” were repeated as often as the word “courage.” Edward Moore Kennedy didn’t quit, and we must not quit.
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