The gauze of nostalgia and fading memories are no doubt going to be all over the tributes and recollections over the next few days, but it’s hard for those of us over 50 to think about the passing of Teddy Kennedy without thinking back to what it was like when it all began. I was a mere eight years old when his older brother Jack was sworn in as president, but I felt a touch of excitement and connection in 1960 when the White House, previously occupied by people old enough to be my grandparents, would now have little kids running around on the lawn. The assassination of President Kennedy was my first taste of real tragedy on a national scale and made me aware of things outside of my own little world. When I was fifteen and started to care about politics and things like civil rights and war, Bobby Kennedy represented real hope that even if I was still six years away from being able to vote (the voting age wasn’t lowered until 1972), I thought I could help make a difference… only to have the dream die on the floor of a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.
I never wanted Teddy Kennedy to be president. I knew in my heart that his heart wasn’t in it, and even if he had been a successful two-term president, he would never have been able to escape the shadow and the legacy of his brother’s thousand days. But he found his place in the Senate, and he probably accomplished more there than he would have in the Oval Office.
There will undoubtedly be a push now to pass healthcare reform — Senator Kennedy’s lifelong goal — and do it in his name. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be in favor of milking his death and legacy for the sole purpose of passing the legislation (and there are no doubt going to be people who will exploit it on both sides), but it would be a fitting way of bringing the debate back to a level of sanity that has been sorely lacking in the discussion so far. Sen. Kennedy was there when Medicare was created, he worked throughout his career to make healthcare affordable and accessible, and he did it without resorting to guns and threats of insurrection. Perhaps that will be the lesson for us all.
It is reminiscent of times long past to read headlines this morning and see “Hyannis Port” once again in the dateline and see reporters on the TV news doing their stand-ups outside the Kennedy compound. And while we may remember “Camelot” more for what it represented as the Kennedy era rather than the Broadway musical, the line from the title song that JFK supposedly liked — “Don’t let it be forgot…that once there was a spot” — also reminds us that while Teddy’s “dream will never die,” it’s the hard work that he did every day that should not be forgotten.