National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Such the Kennedy Moment




Eclipsing even the most memorable performances at the Beijing Olympics, the record-smashing achievements of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and the breathtaking opening and closing ceremonies, was the grand and triumphant appearance of Sen. Teddy Kennedy at Monday’s opening night at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

This was an epochal achievement, a garland-strewn burst across a lifetime-long marathon’s finish line, fending off adversity and fatigue to once again rally his party with an inspiring, magnificent paean to unity, hope and purpose.

Stunning courage and resolve was written all over the ailing senator’s face and body language. He rejected his doctor’s advice against showing up, ignored a chair placed for him behind the podium, and stood strong to firmly deliver one of the most memorable speeches of this writer’s memory.

There were many tears, including from Kennedy family members, among the thousands of delegates and others witnessing the speech in person, humbling salve that heals divides and evokes the deepest wellsprings of resolve.

Despite being stricken with brain cancer earlier this year, Sen. Kennedy could not have done more for his party, his ideals and his most heartfelt causes than to open the Democratic convention with the kind of speech he gave Monday.

There have been many special Kennedy moments in the last 50 years of this nation’s history. They’ve all be occasions when those of us old enough to remember can recall everything about where we were and who we were with when they happened. There are such special moments in all our lives. I have been at the bedside of a family member as he was born, and another as he died. Kennedy moments have impacted the personal lives in an entire nation in similar ways.

I was in my high school cafeteria watching TV with other students as JFK delivered his great “ask not” inaugural address in January, 1961, and Robert Frost couldn’t read his poem with the glare. I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of my college when I heard on the radio that JFK had been shot in November, 1963.

At graduate school, I was in my apartment dozing off when news came over the TV of the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June, 1968. I moved to another apartment in San Francisco when, in July, 1969, I watched the moon landing, the culmination of JFK’s initiative from earlier in the decade. I was at Madison Square Garden in August, 1980 when Teddy Kennedy delivered one of the great political speeches ever at the Democratic Convention.

These were all deep-impact moments for the entire U.S. population, as was this Monday’s speech. They’ve been augmented in my personal experience by Ted Kennedy’s stinging renunciation of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and lack of the so-called “weapons of mass destruction” in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., and my opportunity to chat casually with him when he showed up at a fundraiser for Rep. Jim Moran in Arlington in 2006.

One more point is worth noting, contrasting Teddy Kennedy this week to the Beijing Olympics. Kennedy spoke eloquently about his brother’s vision and will to achieve a manned mission to the moon. “He rose to the challenge,” Kennedy said of JFK, and he equated reaching the moon with “scaling the heights,” declaring that with November’s election, “We can do it again.”

With his classic Bostonian accent, he invoked the “bold endeavor,” dropping the “r” at the end of it.

That notion of breaking out of constraints, certainly exhibited by Teddy, himself, in making it to the podium Monday, can be set in relief against the central image of the mammoth, almost intimidating, Chinese opening and closing Olympic ceremonies.

Those ceremonies’ dominant artistic form was the perfect circle. I could not help but think while watching, “But, there is no freedom in a circle.” A circle depicts a closed system, a single, solitary truth, state of mind, or state. The circle, itself, is an inert boundary condition that restricts any impulse within it to violate, deform or break out of it. It’s a construct of the human mind found nowhere in the dynamic, real natural universe.

That’s in stark contrast to the image provided by Kennedy on Monday, that of a rocket to the moon, fired away from planet Earth, breaking its constraints as a fundamental affirmation of the very nature of human creativity, will, visionary spirit and freedom.