After I heard the news that Ted Kennedy had died last Wednesday, I really didn’t want to make my usual weekly appearance on Tim Barron’s radio show a couple of hours later. Tim’s disdain for Kennedy easily matched my admiration for him. Tim dwelled on Chappaquidick. I thought mostly of his record as a public servant.
Regardless, wet and late from hauling bundles of that week’s City Pulse into the office, I sped off for the station in Holt. As I headed south on Cedar Street, I heard Tim say something to the effect that Kennedy should spend eternity sitting in a chair staring at the “dripping wet” body of Mary Jo Kopechne.
Kennedy himself probably would have said something sardonic, like, “We Kennedys sure bring out the best in people.” But Tim’s comment tore it for me. I headed back to the office after leaving Tim a voicemail message that I wouldn’t make it today. By the time I was back at my desk, though, I reconsidered and called the station to say I’d be available by phone, if he wanted.
At 8:30, Tim called, and a minute later after the briefest of banalities, I let him know how upset I was that on the day of his death Tim couldn’t at least respect the feelings of those of us who loved the last of the Kennedy brothers.
Tim said he had particularly wanted me on the show this morning because of my attachment to Kennedy. Soon he had me reminiscing.
I saw John Kennedy in 1961, when I was 14. He was the president, and I was standing on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington when he went by in a convertible, waving to us, King Hussein seated beside him.
I stood next to Robert Kennedy in 1968 in the University of Pennsylvania’s field house in Philadelphia. I had helped arrange his presidential campaign speech, and my reward was to share the podium.
A few months later, I shook hands with Ted Kennedy on the train bearing Robert Kennedy’s body from his funeral in New York to his burial in Arlington Cemetery outside of Washington. I had been invited to both as the sole representative of the college press.
Ted Kennedy worked his way through the train with other family members. I had cried hours earlier as he delivered his emotional eulogy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I watched him after dark that night as theyput RFK to rest near the president’s grave -- near where Ted Kennedy was buried last weekend.
By then, though, I had already met Ted Kennedy a year or so earlier. I was a reporter for my college newspaper. The editor had written an editorial calling for the abolition of the draft. Kennedy had invited him to testify before a subcommittee he chaired that was studying the Selective Service System. I went along to cover it.
We waited that morning in Kennedy’s Senate office for him to arrive. He was late even for a Kennedy. After more than an hour, he arrived. Rather diffidently, he explained, “A truck ran into my plane on the runway in Boston.” Considering he had almost died in an earlier plane crash, he was almost strangely nonchalant about it.
I met Kennedy again in 1975, this time when I was a Washington correspondent for The Louisville (Ky.) Times. The mayor of Louisville had been invited to some sort of benefit at the Virginia home of Sen. Charles and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and he invited me to cover it. Ted and Joan Kennedy were there, as was actress Tammy Grimes. So was People magazine, and the next week there I was in a photo standing among all of them as if I was important. (Not to the photographer, though: My name didn’t appear in the caption. No doubt he thought a nobody in the midst of the celebs had ruined his best photo.)
The last time I met Kennedy was in Washington around 1979 when he was sponsoring legislation to deregulate the trucking industry (yes, a liberal Democrat fighting for deregulation). At this point, I was on the national staff of Scripps Howard News Service covering Congress. A college friend who was then a Kennedy staffer arranged a one-on-one interview for me. I prepared myself the best I could on a topic in which I had very little interest.
My questions were no great challenge for the well-briefed senator.
Now, Kennedy is celebrated for his style of leadership in the Senate, marked by a willingness to work across the aisles. In his eulogy Saturday, Ted Kennedy Jr. recalled his dad telling him, "Teddy, Republicans love this country just as much as I do."
I also believe in redemption. Ted Kennedy had huge faults — but he worked hard for the public good and accomplished much. We shouldn’t forget Chappaquiddick and other mistakes, but we should keep them in perspective. He was a human being who served his country well.
So, Tim, I urge you to keep those thoughts in mind as I propose we hoist a beer (in your case, a root beer) in memory of Ted Kennedy.
Then we can fight some more.
(Berl Schwartz is editor & publisher of City Pulse. He appeared at 8:30 Wednesday’s on Tim Barron show on WQTX, 92.1 FM.)