State of Grace

By Jon Keller | Boston Magazine |

   
With the possible exception of some dark moments in 1994, few ever doubted Kennedy was an effective senator. But of all of the changes he’s gone through, none leaves him better positioned to win a seventh term than the emerging public perception of him as a good man as well.   

Veteran reporter Walter Isaacson, who covered Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign for Time magazine, told Kennedy biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz that Ted "ate alone, spent a lot of time alone, wasn’t easy to approach. When he did attempt to be gregarious, there was a sort of glaze over his eyes that made the heartiness hollow." But that sad, distant loser has now, at least in Massachusetts, become as close to a revered figure as political cynicism and his own checkered past will allow. His rousing debate and stump performances down the stretch of 1994 Senate campaign were, friends say, signs of a man who had finally found himself.  

"He beat Romney because he finally felt free to be who he is, not what others might have wanted him to be," says Meade. "In many ways, he didn’t stop campaigning; he decided he liked it, and voters liked him."   

Kennedy’s public appearances in Massachusetts, once rare and stilted, are now more frequent and relaxed, and include previously unheard-of banter with onlookers. (After fielding skeptical questions at an early 1999 press conference, Ted asked one reporter: "Jesus, are you sure you want to kill me off so early?") And the anecdotal evidence of Kennedy’s goodheartedness keeps on piling up. He was the first person to try to visit conservative radio talk-show host David Brudnoy, a longtime Kennedy critic, at the hospital after word of Brudnoy’s HIV diagnosis became public. At school events involving his wife’s kids from an earlier marriage, Kennedy is reportedly the first to arrive and the last to leave. And the mother of a classmate of his stepson Curran was amazed to see Kennedy last July, within days of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., pulling up to the curb at National Airport to pick up Curran and his friends as they returned from summer baseball camp. "He knew all his stepson’s friends’ names," she recalls.   

And even if those images of his humanity are seen by only a few, everyone has had a front-row seat to watch Ted Kennedy expressing his spirituality at high-profile funerals throughout the nineties. "She sustained us in the saddest times by her faith in God, which was the greatest gift she gave us," he said at Rose’s 1995 North End funeral service. (Before giving his eulogy, he was seen on camera taking Communion, which led to the revelation that he had sought and had been granted an annulment of his first marriage.) His eulogy for JFK Jr. was not broadcast, but the sight of a visibly crushed Ted taking charge of the family and the funeral impressed even Manning, his former political adversary. "Ted was a silent sufferer that week," he says. "Part of being a very good Catholic is being a silent sufferer."  

And when the six Worcester firefighters killed in a warehouse fire last December were eulogized at a televised memorial service, Kennedy’s eloquent remembrance of his own losses was suitable for framing in any religious Massachusetts household, right alongside the faded photographs of his martyred brothers. "I wish that loved ones did not have to die too young," he said. "I wish that tragedy never haunted a single soul. But I know that sometimes life breaks your heart."  

If Ted Kennedy’s relationship with the people of Massachusetts proves stronger than ever on Election Day 2000, consider it the successful completion of a long, circuitous journey to redemption that so many in this hard-drinking, hardscrabble state, Catholic and otherwise, can relate to. As even Michael Sullivan puts it, a bit grudgingly but not without admiration: "He may have overcome some of those personal failures."