Sir Edward M. Kennedy died this morning, apparently in peace.
Ritualistically flipping through the news channels this morning to see how the event played out, and hearing the various remembrances from those who knew and worked with him in the Senate for a half century, I recalled my own experience of hearing him speak in person, and got in touch with why I think he is a prophetic leader who followed the injunction of Jeremiah to “seek the peace of the city…”
I didn’t grow up liking the Kennedy Family. Raised in a Republican household, evangelical church and conservative community in Southern California, I learned to be suspicious of Roman Catholics, especially one that was running for President of the United States. ‘What if the Pope, who speaks infallibly, were to instruct JFK on what to do and how to run the country?’ I was taught to ask. ‘Would he be his own man?’ Some in my church even thought that President Kennedy might be the Anti-Christ, especially after he died of a ‘wound to the head’ (in fulfillment of Scripture) and was rumored to have been revived and kept alive to be revealed in the ‘last days’ which were about to begin. (BTW, I teach apocalyptic eschatology at Drew, but with a greater critical eye and hermeneutic of suspicion than when I thought as a child).
And then there was Bobby in 1968. Like many in my generation coming of age in the late 1960’s, I was quite enamored with him as a Presidential candidate: the bushy hair, the winning smile, the courageous stand against the war in Viet Nam, the rock star quality of a youthful and charismatic prophetic leader. He was speaking in Los Angeles near my home in Pasadena when he died. How shocked I was to learn that the man who shot him down, Sirhan Sirhan, had attended Sunday School at our Church when he was a child. Martin Luther King Jr. also was assassinated that same year. The Year 1968, I teach my students in class, was one of those apocalyptic years in the US, and a hinge of history in the world.
Finally Teddy, the last surviving brother in the dynasty, dominated the political landscape as the “lion of the Senate.” The younger Teddy had disappointed me with his human and moral failures at Chappaquiddick and Palm Beach. But my respect for him grew as I noted his many political and humanitarian accomplishments, and his growth in character, during his 46 years in the US Senate.
As we are being reminded today, Senator Kennedy is largely responsible for the Voting Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and was instrumental in civil rights legislation. He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, brokered a peace accord in Northern Ireland by convincing the British government to deal directy with the Irish government. He achieved a ban on arms sales to the dictatorship in Chile, and voted against authorizing the Iraq war–“the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the United States Senate.”
For these and other accomplishments, he was knighted Sir Edward Kennedy by the British government and honored and regarded as the “Lion of the Senate” in the USA.
The one time I got to hear him speak was at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. My Republican friend, John Hillyer, was an NBC camera man and got me in on a media pass.
First Jesse Jackson gave a mesmerizing keynote on the “Rainbow Coalition” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jessejackson1984dnc.htm
After Jesse spoke, Teddy ascended the platform to the utter delight and thrill of all delegates and audience. Commanding our full attention with his energy and rhetorical style, he introduced Presidential nominee Walter Mondale before he spoke. I remember how struck I was with Kennedy’s personal and power presence in Moscone Center convention hall. Ted definitely upstaged Walter that evening, though Kennedy is remembered more for his keynote speech at the 1980 National Convention in New York (where I also had gotten in, but not in time to hear him there).
Unfortunately, Senator Kennedy did not see his dream for universal health care realized in his lifetime, and he will not be able to cast his vote for the ‘public option’ in the upcoming comprehensive health care package in Congress. Yet, his dream lives on for peace, justice, equality, and healthcare for all.
As President Obama said today, Ted Kennedy was a “defender of a dream”—the American Dream, the dream of MLK, the dream of the Beloved Community of Shalom.
Excerpts from Edward Kennedy’s “The Dream Shall Never Die” Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention of 1980:
Finally, we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must — We must not surrender — We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.
The President, the Vice President, the members of Congress have a medical plan that meets their needs in full, and whenever senators and representatives catch a little cold, the Capitol physician will see them immediately, treat them promptly, fill a prescription on the spot. We do not get a bill even if we ask for it, and when do you think was the last time a member of Congress asked for a bill from the Federal Government? And I say again, as I have before, if health insurance is good enough for the President, the Vice President, the Congress of the United States, then it’s good enough for you and every family in America.
And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:
“I am a part of all that I have met
To [Tho] much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are —
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
Video Clip of Teddy and his dream:
The dream lives on…