The Best Kennedy: Ted Kennedy

By Chris Matthews | Boston Magazine |

Ted Kennedy often went to Mass at the church my wife and I attend in Washington. Blessed Sacrament has long been Vicki’s parish and, after she and Ted got together, he became a weekly presence there. No one paid him any special attention: He was just a guy who wore a leather jacket, taking a seat in one of the pews toward the back. It was easy to forget the history he carried with him.

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That may explain my behavior during one particular Saturday Mass in November 1995. Before heading to church that evening, Kathleen and I learned that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot and killed at a large peace rally in Tel Aviv. As Mass ended, parishioners congregated at the back of the church, and I said something to Kennedy about the shooting. He had gotten the news, too, and was saddened by it. We agreed that the priest must have been unaware of what had happened; otherwise he would have led us in prayer for Rabin and his family. I said goodbye, and then, as I walked out the door, it struck me: How could I have spoken so casually about assassination with Ted Kennedy—of all men?

The reason was that Kennedy never acted like a man who was stalked by tragedy, and in that moment at the church—rather than flinch, or shoot me a look, or do anything to remind anyone of everything he had been through—his thoughts were not about himself, but for the people of Israel, what they were going through.

I write this now because it’s an important part of understanding Ted Kennedy. That day in the church more than a decade ago was a small window into how Ted had managed to survive the twin tragedies of his brothers’ assassinations: He refused to be haunted or defined by a fear of death. A close friend of mine who once accompanied him on various trips recalls how the doors to Kennedy’s house were rarely locked; how his Massachusetts license plates grandly ID’d the senator’s car as "USS 1"; how Kennedy took the same route each morning across the Potomac River; how he never had special security; how he walked like any other senator from his office to the Capitol.

He did what Kennedys do, in other words. He soldiered on. But Ted did it longer, and better, than anyone ever had a right to expect. That’s something for which his worst enemies should stop even now and assign him credit. Alan Simpson, the flinty former Republican senator from Wyoming and a friend of Kennedy’s, once said, "If other people had gone through what he’d gone through…they’d just be sitting there drooling and staring off into the east."

  • Dr. John

    Chris Matthews has written a truly wonderful piece that sums up as well as anything I have ever read the terrible tragedies that befell the Kennedy family and that shaped the person who Ted Kennedy ultimately became.

    His was a truly remarkable life, and, despite some missteps, incredibly productive. One often reads about what was inculcated into the Kennedy brothers and sisters: of those to whom much is given, much is expected. No one exemplified that better than Ted.

    His death truly does represent the end of an era. We can only speculate what kind of country we would now be living in, had Joe Jr., Jack, and Bobby been given the same length of years as their youngest brother.

    I, for one, think wed be much better off than we are.