Remembering Ted Kennedy

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 11:  Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) asks questions during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee wi
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 11: Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) asks questions during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee with General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on Capitol Hill September 11, 2007 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day, Petraeus and Crocker also appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to continue delivering their reports on progress made in Iraq since additional U.S. troops were sent to the nation earlier this year. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Yesterday, George Washington's birthday, is also mine. It was Ted Kennedy's as well. And so in the last decade of his life, after we became friends, we would call each other.

As ever, he was always ready to laugh, including at himself. On one such day, we agreed that our birthday had been a great day for America -- if only because we had George Washington to fall back on. On another, Ted toasted me at a birthday dinner. Noting that we shared the day with our first president, he remarked that, "For a long time, I took that as a sign that the presidency really could work out for me." He paused, grinning, and concluded, "Well, Ric, I guess now it's up to you."

In some ways, it's a curious thing to become friends with a man whose life, by then, had been so integral to the national consciousness for almost 40 years. I experienced the great bulk of his life -- the many achievements, the seemingly endless tragedies, his impassioned political vision, his missteps and recovery -- only as millions of others did. Many knew him much better and longer than I. As to many of the most critical events in his life, and how he felt about them, I claim no special insight.

And that life was rich in triumph and pain and perseverance. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that "there are no second acts in American lives"; Ted Kennedy proved how wrong he was. By my reckoning, Ted had at least four acts that teemed with every kind of human experience.

There were the early years of his life before 1968, the year that the last of his three brothers was murdered. By then, he had already lost Joe and Jack and his sister Kathleen -- one to war; one to assassination; one to an airplane crash. He had watched as another sister, Rosemary, was incapacitated. He had endured the lonely childhood of the youngest in a large and busy family, frequently changing schools, often without the attention of his mother or father. He had been dismissed from Harvard, served in the Army, then come back to finish college and then law school.

In the face of criticism that he was trading on the family name, he gained election to the Senate at the age of 30. He nearly died in an airplane crash. He became a collegial and effective senator, and father to Ted Jr., Patrick and Kara. As his brother Robert reached for the presidency, he relied ever more on Ted's support. In 1968, a stage of life which held out such promise ended with Bobby's assassination.

The next 12 years were marked by that tragedy -- and others. Ted turned down the chance to run in Bobby's place. He threw himself into his role as senator, his disciplined work habits at odds with an increasingly roiled personal life which seemed driven by a need to escape.The tragedy at Chappaquiddick which took the life of a young woman marked him as a man, and as a public figure.

His son Ted Jr. lost a leg to a potentially lethal cancer, then was restored to a full life with his father's unstinting love and encouragement. His wife Joan was plagued by alcoholism. His career as a senator was filled with legislative achievement. In 1980, he finally reached for the presidency, challenging a fellow Democrat, Jimmy Carter. And lost.

The 12 years thereafter were even more accomplished and fraught. Ted and Joan divorced. Turning away from the presidency, he rededicated himself to his work as a senator -- among many achievements helping to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act. He took a dangerous trip to South Africa to support the anti-apartheid movement. He made ever more friends across the aisle. Yet, for many, his scathing attack on Robert Bork made him a polarizing symbol of partisan ferocity. His personal life was ever more troubled by excess.

His reputation suffered. Though the respect and affection of his colleagues remained constant, his standing among his constituents slipped.In 1991, he confronted the obvious: "I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than disagreements with my positions... I recognize my own shortcomings -- the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."

He did that. And then he met and married Victoria Reggie, beginning what -- and this much I know from my own observation -- were by far the most peaceful and happy years in a long, tumultuous and uniquely accomplished life.

With a tough and determined campaign, he beat back his one serious electoral challenger, Mitt Romney, saving his political career. He sailed a lot. He savored his family, and his role as stepdad to Vicki's son and daughter. He became the one indispensable senator, standing on a decades -- long foundation of laws addressing immigration, cancer research, health insurance, apartheid, disability discrimination, AIDS, civil rights, mental health benefits, children's health insurance, and education. Concluding that he had "amassed a titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country," Time magazine named Edward Kennedy one of the "10 Best Senators" in American history.

It was during that richly fulfilling final act that I got to know him. Though ours was not a long friendship, I spent time with him in his homes in Hyannisport and Washington DC, in his Senate office and among his peers, on Martha's Vineyard and, of course, sailing. He called me when my dad died. He gave my oldest son -- who learned a lot and shared it with me -- a summer job in his office. He advised me about my political novels, and we shared our observations about his world -- his consistently keen and perceptive, mine a good deal less so.

So, all in all, I could grasp the man he always had been, and also had become. When he died, I understood what those closest to him had lost. For all that he had endured, Ted was such a vivid and life-affirming presence that his absence was more deeply felt.

I met him in the best possible way -- through Vicki, with whom I served on a non-profit board. If a man's choice of a partner is a window on his qualities -- at least if made in his maturity -- then Vicki would have commended Ted Kennedy if his surname had been Smith.

Smart, capable, hard-working and passionate about the issues, Vicky cared about every aspect of Ted's life. Her quick wit and irreverence were an antidote to worry. Early in their relationship, Ted mentioned over dinner that his approval ratings in Massachusetts had fallen to 48%. "That's a relief," Vicki replied, "because I never go out with anyone whose approval is less than 47%."

As in the best of marriages, they made a real difference in each other's lives. By the time I met him, the hard living had long since ended, and a deep contentment had settled in. It helped that Vicki and he had a shared history -- the Reggies had been Kennedy allies for decades. So that Vicki understood in a deeper way the life that Ted had lived, the source and depth of his commitment to public life, and the issues to which he had dedicated his career.

More than most couples, they were partners in every aspect of life -- the personal, the political, the people they cared about and the things they enjoyed. At Hyannisport, she judiciously interspersed the pictures of his lost family members with bright ones of the new generation. This, it seemed, captured the renewal Ted had found.

The man I saw engaged in life wholeheartedly. He loved spending time with Ted, Patrick and Kara, and adored his grandkids. He was a passionate sailor -- when he was on the Cape, his hard working staff prayed for good sailing weather, some relief from his incessant demands for information. He loved music -- when he conducted the Boston Pops on one occasion, his exuberance filled the place. He painted -- well, as it happens -- a peaceful respite. The talk he sparked at the Kennedy dinner table was spirited and wide-ranging, his guests drawn from every kind of pursuit. Whether in conversation or reading, he was deeply curious, always wanting to know more.

Ted was ever attentive to family, not least those who his brothers left behind. His office knew to reach him immediately if a family member called. When his nephew John died in yet another plane crash, he held the sprawling Kennedy clan together.

One incident in particular drove home how deeply he felt his inherited responsibilities. On a summer weekend in Hyannisport, we were going to a Tony Bennett concert. When I went outside I saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair, obviously incapacitated, attended by a nurse. To my astonishment, I found out that she was Ted's sister Rosemary.

For whatever reason, I had thought her dead. Of course I knew of the emotional difficulties which had led Joe Kennedy to have her lobotomized in her youth, the ravages of that decision. Despite this, I learned, Rosemary loved music, and responded to it with great happiness. So Ted had arranged for her to see Tony Bennett.

The joy she felt that night was written on her face. Later on, I learned that Ted used music to share time with Rosemary in a way that always reached her. On one occasion, he showed her a video of him conducting the Boston Pops. When he saw her delight, they sat through it over and over.

We shared one family experience in common -- becoming step-dads. Ted was great at it. He had a keen sense of how to support both Curran and Caroline. He never tried to replace their dad, and let them come to him. His reward, and theirs, was a deep immersion in their lives.

He went to their games, parent-teacher conferences -- anything important. He was a constant booster, proud of their achievements. Without making a show of it, in critical ways he filled the role of dad. Perhaps, I thought then, he remembered being a lonely kid who sometimes fell through the cracks. Whatever the reason, Ted helped make sure they never felt a void.

Discovering that sailing made Curran seasick, Ted re-engaged with his stepson's favorite sports, baseball and football. After becoming ill, he insisted on flying to Connecticut to watch Caroline play college soccer. If Curran or Caroline had a difficult time, or some vexing challenge, they would often come to Ted - sometimes for advice on how to break the bad news to the family disciplinarian. For Vicki, grateful for Teds' engagement, the division of labor worked out fine.

Ted's empathy for others informed his private and public lives. Accompanied by Vicki or Ted Jr. -- who himself had transcended disability -- Ted routinely visited wounded veterans at Walter Reed. He called every family of Massachusetts service members who had lost their lives in war, and tried to go their services at Arlington. After 9/11, he reached out to all the families in the state whose loved ones had died in the attacks. Returning from a cancer treatment during his final illness, he and Vicki stopped at the homes of two soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ted was deeply responsive to humanitarian requests -- as one example, helping to rescue Jews from the former Soviet Union. Alan Dershowitz told me about one such case -- a Jewish infant trapped in Moscow with a grave medical condition which required treatment in America. Ted used his contacts to arrange a medical exit visa and came with Alan to the airport to meet the baby and her family. 18 years later, Alan bought her -- by then a Brandeis student -- to meet her rescuer. When they hugged, tears came to Ted's eyes.

I know of many such acts, large and small, almost all of them unpublicized. Between his memorial service, his funeral, and the opening of the Kennedy Institute for The Senate, Nancy and I spent hours in line with other people -- most often ordinary citizens -- who admired him. What struck me is how many had a personal story of some kindness or service he had done them, often unasked. A reporter at his funeral, free to move about, discovered that such stories were legion.

His staff was devoted to him, and Ted to them. He was a great encourager, and mentor -- the opening of the Institute drew hundreds of successful men and women whose talents he had nurtured and whose careers he had advanced. For Ted Kennedy, loyalty was a two-way street.

My point in all this is not to enlarge Ted beyond his due, or to elide his well-known failings in the years before I knew him. It is simply this: the facts of his public life, whether difficult or uplifting, did not fully capture the man.

As to his life as a senator, what struck me was how hard he worked, how committed he was, and how tirelessly he labored to achieve whatever good he envisioned. Every time I saw him he was deeply engaged in some legislative pursuit, typically to help improve the lives of people without the advantages he had always enjoyed. He viewed his career as dedicated to civil rights in the broadest sense -- racial equity, to be sure, but also access to healthcare and education, as well as workers rights, women's rights, and gay rights. His quest was to "make America America" -- the country it should be.

A lifetime spent on the water caused him to view sailing as a template for achieving this. For once, a sporting metaphor made perfect sense. From childhood, he learned that winds could shift abruptly, currents change, waters turn choppy, and sunshine give way to winds and rain. To win a race, one had to plan for -- and adapt to -- the vicissitudes of fortune. Above all, you had to be patient, but always with an eye on the finish line.

So he was in Congress. Here his appreciation of all sorts of people helped -- a senator can't sail alone. He understood his colleagues and their imperatives. He shared credit, and found compromises which still advanced his goals. His word was good, and everyone knew it. He wasn't there for show, but to advance the greater good as he saw it. He was that rare breed we miss so badly now -- a man of the Senate in the best sense.

Toward the end of his life, he was still reaching for the future. One incident stays with me. For several summers, he and Vicki celebrated their anniversary by sailing over to Martha's Vineyard, and the four of us would have dinner. On the last such occasion, in 2007, I incautiously remarked that Barack Obama -- then a presidential aspirant -- seemed to be inspiring young people in somewhat the same way as had Jack and Bobby.

A shadow crossed Ted's face. At once I understood that I had stepped in it -- for him, no one compared to the brothers he had lost, and for whom he would always grieve. Though I quickly shifted the subject, I later confessed to Vicki how terrible I felt. It was a bad moment, enough so that I never forgot it.

I don't know whether Ted did. But when we were talking on the phone very early in 2008, he told me that he'd been thinking about Obama -- including how much he seemed to inspire John Kennedy's daughter Caroline and her kids. That was how he wanted the next generation to feel, he said, and so he had decided to back Barack Obama for president.

Perhaps that conversation was a kindness to me; perhaps Ted had forgotten all about my careless remark. But when he endorsed Senator Obama three days later, with Caroline at his side, it marked a pivotal turning point in Obama's drive for the Democratic nomination. His last illness struck shortly thereafter. That August, by then gravely sick, Ted spoke at the Democratic convention in support of his friend, the party's nominee, and lived to attend the inaugural of our first black president.

But one memory sticks with me above all. On September 10, 2001, I flew back to Washington to get Ted's advice on a novel about gun violence and the political power of the gun lobby. He gave me two hours of thoughtful and fascinating advice, supplemented by research carried out by his staff. At the end he said, "Everyone knows how I feel about guns. Maybe you ought to talk to John Edwards, who has to deal with the problem in a southern state."

I'd actually thought of that, I told him, but didn't know Senator Edwards or his staff. "Don't worry," Ted assured me, "I'll take care of it."

The next morning I was dictating my notes of Ted's advice in my hotel room, with CNN on in the background. Abruptly I looked up -- within minutes one hijacked plane hit the Twin Towers, then another. Like everyone else, I was stunned and sickened. As I struggled to absorb the implications of terrorism at home and on this scale, it gradually dawned on me that my research trip was over. Amidst a national tragedy and, quite possibly, a national emergency, official Washington would have no time for me.

That was Tuesday. But I was stuck there -- the airports were closed. Then, Thursday morning, my hotel phone rang.

"This is John Edwards," my caller said. "Ted Kennedy told me to call you, and I always try to do what Ted tells me to do."

Would that Ted Kennedy were here to tell them now.