Saturday, August 29, 2009

Requiescat in pace

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
-- W.B Yeats

A lonely impulse of delight. That's what I'll always remember about Teddy Kennedy. That's the line that stuck with me all week as I watched a nation begin to say goodbye to the last of the lions, to Rose Kennedy's baby boy.
My family is Irish-Catholic, and that should tell you all you really need know about how I feel about the Kennedy brothers. Suffice it to say, Irish Americans never knew one of their own who was in charge in their own country. To see Jack and Bobby and Teddy rise to be leaders of this country, to be leaders of the world, well, it was special. Only in America.
But that coin has two sides. Only in America could Teddy's brothers all be killed. Killed fighting the Nazis, killed for being a president, killed for trying to become one.
But Teddy, as the poet said, would live to comb gray hair. All the hopes of a nation, of those who were inspired by his brothers' artful words, would come to rest with the baby of the family.
Teddy Kennedy didn't have to become a great man or a great Senator. His dignity and eloquence eulogizing his brothers, some time in the Senate, that would have been enough. After Chappaquiddick, after 1980 -- when he lost but held his head high, and gave a speech that will live forever, not just for its beauty in describing an immortal dream, but for its fiery demand that Democrats in this country stand for something -- Teddy Kennedy could have bowed out gracefully, retired to the shores of Cape Cod, sailed his boat, taken a drink for the comfort in it and relieved himself of the burden of carrying his name and his brother's ghosts up those Capitol steps.
But Teddy kept coming. Like the waves against the shore at Hyannis, day by day, he kept chipping away at America's problems, at his own failings, at our own failings. Like the tide, Teddy Kennedy kept coming.
The flags at the VFW hall behind my office -- and all across this country -- fly at half-staff this morning, and it is right they should. Whatever anyone thought of Teddy, or his politics, or his family, we all owe the man a debt. Because he kept coming, lives are better in America.
Have a daughter who played sports in high school? Teddy Kennedy helped it happen. Have an immigrant in the family, from anywhere, and, really, who doesn't? Teddy made it easier for them. Have a mother or father who depended on Medicare? Thank Teddy. A child of privilege, Teddy Kennedy spent a lifetime working on behalf of those who didn't enjoy his advantages.
I only met Ted Kennedy once. The day Paul Wellstone's plane went down in the Northwoods of Minnesota, he was supposed to be on it. But he missed the last plane out of Washington -- I'm sure there was a bill to be worked on, a vote to be courted, one last phone call to be made -- and instead arrived in the morning.
At Wellstone's headquarters on University Avenue, a crowd gathered outside in the October rain. 50, 100, 150 people, lost and grieving, simply stood outside and wondered what to do, now. And after a long while, Teddy came out and spoke to them.
His words were not those of a politician. They were those of a man who had seen too much death, who saw the pain in the faces and wanted to make it go away. Teddy called Paul a voice for the voiceless. And he shook hands, he hugged the weeping, he began again the horrible process of binding up the wounds, of comforting the living, of honoring the dead. His lonely impulse carried those people forward, and he was big enough for all their pain.

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

In a few hours, the man Teddy picked to carry his standard will step to the podium and speak, to sing the last of the lions to the shores where his brothers lay. It always fell to Teddy to give the eulogy, and, I have no doubt, he asked the President to do it in no small part because he didn't want that awful burden passed to his son or his niece. May he be big enough for all our pain.
The Senate will return to session, and for the first time in my lifetime, Teddy Kennedy will not be there to fight for the little guy. But here, the burden falls not to President Obama -- or to any of our Senators -- alone.
It's time the rest of us carried our share of the load. How we would, if we could, yield the rest of our time to the distinguished gentleman from Massachusetts, that he might say what we are feeling, what we know to be right, one more time. But he has earned his rest. He saw wrong and tried to right it, saw pain and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. He alone among his famous brothers will be known for the balance of his life, and not his death.
It is to us, now, to take up what's left of the flag and keep moving forward. May the road rise up to meet us. May we seek, may we find, and may we, most of all, never yield.
And may we do Teddy proud.

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