Camelot has ended. Again.
The death late last night in Massachusetts of Ted Kennedy, one of the historic lions of the United States Senate, followed swiftly on the heels of his sister, the Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who passed away on August 11th. With the passing of these two very public personalities, only one of the siblings of JFK and RFK, the much more private former Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, remains.
Camelot has ended again. Which means that it has ended before. And probably will again. For it is a legend, and legend seldom dies for long, if at all.
Camelot was the nickname for John F. Kennedy's thousand day administration of the early 1960s, chosen because of the young president's fondness for the hit Broadway musical about the legendary court of King Arthur.
But it was really about much more than a single presidential administration, or the immediate promise of another under a President Robert F. Kennedy, or the long lingering promise of yet another under a President Edward M. Kennedy, or even the transferred promise of another under a President Barack Obama.
It's about a spirit, a spirit which to many seemed to have been captured like lightning in a bottle in the early 1960s, an exciting time of promise and peril, which accounts for that era's powerful hold on the American popular imagination.
Ted Kennedy himself captured the spirit of the thing in his great eulogy for Robert F. Kennedy at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral on June 8th, 1968 when he quoted from his second slain brother's speech to the youth of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation a few years earlier.
"The answer is to rely on youth. Not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease."
Ted Kennedy was never to have been the leader of his family nor its standard-bearer in national politics. That was to have been eldest brother Joe Kennedy. But he died over the English Channel in World War II, killed in the explosion of an experimental weapons system, earning the Navy Cross and the thanks of a grateful nation. If not the thanks of his next youngest brother, John Kennedy, a more ironical type who wanted to be a writer instead of a politician but ended as the youngest man ever elected to the presidency. Robert Kennedy, of course, then took up the briefly fallen standard but after his assassination it came to the baby brother of the family.
Who did not fare so well challenging a sitting president of his own party but ended, following a Senate career beginning with his inauguration in 1962, as the third longest serving senator in American history. Rather than the lightning strikes which characterized his brothers' forays in national politics, Ted Kennedy became the master of the long slog, placing a deep imprint on the American fabric.
From his perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he once chaired and where he served longer than anyone else in history, he shaped the judicial system. Through his chairmanship of Senate committees on labor, education, and health issues, and through sheer assertiveness, determination, and skill as a sort of senator at large, Kennedy played a critical role in developing education, housing, and health care opportunities, advancing the civil rights of women, minorities, gays, immigrants, and the disabled, and promoting human rights, arms control while opposing unwise intervention around the world.
And his early endorsement last year of a then trailing Barack Obama provided a forceful counterweight to former President Bill Clinton and helped the freshman senator win a rugged nomination fight against Hillary Clinton as he, niece Caroline Kennedy, and other members of the Kennedy family worked to attach the aura of the Kennedy legacy to Obama.
It was then that it became apparent that Ted Kennedy was ailing. While his speeches were vigorous and well-received, Kennedy tired easily and found it difficult to move around much on the campaign trail. Never the healthiest of men in his later years -- he really didn't work out with nephew Arnold Schwarzenegger -- it seemed at first that the problem was related to earlier health problems. But in May of last year, the truth became apparent after Kennedy suffered a seizure, leading to a diagnosis of a cancerous brain tumor.
He made a brave and dramatic appearance at last year's Democratic National Convention in Colorado, a state he ran for his brother John in the 1960 presidential campaign.
As fate would have it, it was a year to the day before his death.
"This November," he declared, "the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. So, with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."
He went on to vow to attend Obama's inauguration. Which he did, only to suffer another seizure at the Inaugural luncheon immediately after in Statuary Hall.
He returned to the Senate to break the Republican filibuster against Obama's economic recovery program, but mostly faded after that, his absence felt most critically in the health care debate, where a powerful Senate presence has been sorely lacking.
Imagine how the current health care debate would have been different, had Ted Kennedy, with his powerful advocacy for progressive principle coupled with the ability to find a way to work, when possible, with a few Republicans, been able to bring his force and focus to bear this year.
He was able to participate in the re-authorization of Americorps, in the form of the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch to open the Boston Red Sox season in April.
But when sister Eunice, who suffered a series of strokes over the last several years that did not rob her of her essential verve, passed away two weeks ago, he was only able to attend a private family gathering, but not the public wake and funeral service.
Camelot has ended, again. But as Ted Kennedy himself pointed out, the legend is ever renewable. "The hope rises again, and the dream lives on."
For it is not about "a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease."
Though a most imperfect man, Ted Kennedy made his choice over a life of ease, and America is much the better for it.