National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Ted Kennedy

News like that about Sen. Ted Kennedy last week comes like a kick in the solar plexus. It stops everything dead in its tracks. All the jockeying, all the bickering of political and personal lives is put on hold and a deep collective sob is heard issued forth from every mere mortal.

No one deserves that kind of diagnosis. What makes it so universally tragic in Ted Kennedy’s case are not only the terrible losses his family has endured over the last half-century, since the assassinations of his brothers John, in 1963, and Robert, in 1968. It’s because, as the unrivalled senior old-fashioned and unapologetic liberal in the U.S. Senate, he was the very representation of care and compassion for the world’s disadvantaged and dispossessed.

In other words, no matter whether one agrees or not with him on policy questions, everyone knows he has a heart of gold, even while he’s a real fighter.

That’s kind of the core difference between us liberals and too many of those on the other side of the great liberal-conservative divide. The very term, “liberal,” has become so demonized by the hate-filled rants of Rush Limbaugh and their ilk over three decades that almost no one, with the rare exception of a Ted Kennedy, dares identify with the term anymore.

It’s because, laced through the conservative camp are many who are simply not nice. They’re downright nasty. Liberals, or progressives, if you prefer, always seem to get caught off guard by this. They’re stunned into silence by just how rude and belligerent their bullying right wing adversaries are.

The impulse is to recoil in horror from such brutish behavior, and to refuse to respond in kind. Have you ever seen how polished right wing TV commentators like Lou Dobbs on CNN and Bill O’Reilly on Fox are at intimidating and shutting up the liberal “guests” they invite into their televisionland lairs? They “invite” them like the spider invites the fly.

Ted Kennedy is a role model for any unapologetic liberal who does not want to fall victim to the base tactics of such bullies. Have the big heart, but fight like hell.

The first time I saw Kennedy in person was at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York City. In his one, most serious bid for the party’s presidential nomination, he came there as its only hope to keep the White House. Everyone knew that the re-nomination of Jimmy Carter would be the kiss of death, as indeed it was.

But there was too much inertia in the nominating process to prevent the inevitable. The only hope was that the delegates to the convention agreed to a rule change at its outset to free up some delegates to opt for Kennedy.

In what may be a precursor to this August’s Democratic Convention, the vote on the disposition of delegates was the most dramatic moment at the 1980 convention. The Kennedy forces, younger and more idealistic, lost narrowly. The die was cast.

Kennedy went on to deliver what is recognized as among the greatest political speeches in American history, but nothing could prevent Carter from securing the nomination, and Reagan from winning by a landslide a couple months later.

I’ve been in the same hearing room on Capital Hill with Kennedy many times since. He’s one of those guys who’s simply larger than life. Once, I spoke with him after he delivered an indictment of Bush’s invasion of Iraq at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. I thought he’d pulled his punches slightly, talking about Bush’s propaganda offensive to justify the invasion.

“Why didn’t you use the word, ‘lie?,’” I asked. “I choose my words,” he growled. I’m pretty sure he eventually has used the one I suggested.

Ted Kennedy’s diagnosis came at the same Massachusetts General Hospital where my older brother received the same in 2002. Dr. Stephen Benton was a beloved professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the inventor of “white light holography” that is used universally as an anti-counterfeiting devise on credit cards. I was with him when he passed away at that hospital 11 months later.

I was reminded vividly of all that not only by the news of Sen. Kennedy, but by my participation in the beautiful wedding of my brother’s daughter in Boston last weekend.