The first time I met The Lion of the Senate, I was not nearly as in awe of him as I was of then House Speaker Tip O'Neill. I was about eleven years old, four-foot nothing, and the Speaker was enormous to me. In truth, he dwarfed most. Being precocious and a political junkie even then, I was of course aware that both were giants, and I was eager to sponge every essence of the meetings. I was impressed for all of the obvious reasons but also because both gentlemen had a twinkle in their eyes, a mirthful laugh and massive paws that enveloped mine into a generous but gentle handshake that pulled me into a hug.
I also remember being so proud of my dad whom I was shadowing as he made visits on The Hill, championing his dream -- and an official project of the State of Georgia -- of helping Americans learn as much about citizenship as they know about baseball. Each listened to my dad, agreed it was important, pledged their support, and I believed them. Neither let him down. The dream and the project live on.
The second time I met Senator Kennedy it was on a political junket with "The Dean's List," a group of high donor fundraisers for Governor Howard Dean's Presidential Primary campaign. We had been invited to participate in the "Unity" events that aimed to get all Democrats and party backers on board for the John Kerry nomination. Our friend Terry Lierman put together an amazing day of small group meetings with Democratic Party luminaries from both congressional chambers, and we were all very impressed and honored. But THE man we were most excited and abuzz to meet was Senator Ted Kennedy.
He did not disappoint.
The broad, welcoming grin, the twinkle in the eye and the mirth I remembered were there, but our group was treated to something entirely different. There was an urgency in his message to us that day. We must be unified. Our young people were dying in a senseless war while our enemies were being emboldened and multiplying as our military endeavors were distracted from the real perpetrators of 9/11. And if we didn't unify on the matter of health care reform, our entire economy would face collapse and the government would go bankrupt. We had to get together.
I remember thinking, wow. This is one man who can use 10,000 words to say something so simple. The thought was one of admiration for how earnest he was and how he spoke, not as a grizzled, jaded and fading political vet. Rather, he spoke with the vim and vigor of a young pup candidate, a true believer.
And so, we believed him. I wonder if we'll let him down?