Last week’s long goodbye to Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy evoked many memories for those of us who came to Washington inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Thousands of college graduates flocked to Washington in the 1960s, driven by a desire for careers in public service, and perhaps just a little of the Kennedy mystique. Many are still here, retired or close to retirement age, and Saturday’s funeral cortege brought tears and reminiscences.
Senator Kennedy’s cortege to the Capitol reminded me of the warm June day in 1968 when I, along with so many Senate staffers, stood in silent shock along Constitution Avenue as Senator Robert Kennedy’s cortege passed by on its way from Union Station to his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The crowd waiting to say a last goodbye to Ted Kennedy was much more animated; sad perhaps, but not shocked since everyone knew of his brain tumor diagnosis for more than a year. It was nice to see Virginia’s former Senator Chuck Robb and his wife, Lynda, on the steps of the Capitol. Interestingly, the CNN reporters did not mention them although the cameraman returned to them several times. The Kennedy-Johnson story would have made an interesting commentary during the wait, but perhaps the reporters were too young to make the connection. In fact, several television reporters noted that they had never seen an event like this; for many observers, however, this was at least the third time…
Three things struck me during the lengthy televised ceremonies: legislative acumen; Senate staff; and a widow’s grace. Senator Kennedy was a legislative giant, to be sure, but I was a bit amused that he was given credit for nearly every great piece of legislation passed during his tenure. Many legislative victories were because of others who carried the bills: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed after parliamentary maneuvers by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. The Higher Education Act of 1965 was championed by my former boss, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. The Senate in those days had many great champions, and their accomplishments grew, slowly and methodically, over time. New Senators, such as Senator Kennedy in the 1960s, learned from great mentors like Mansfield and Morse, and carried those lessons forward. Today, the world’s greatest deliberative body seems to suffer from attention deficit disorder.
Senators’ successes depend on the quality of their staffs, and how well they get along together. In the “good old days” on the Hill, there was lots of camaraderie between and among Senators and staff, ignoring party lines. I can remember touch football games between our Democratic Wayne Morse team and the Republican Charles Percy team, and softball games where the Senators themselves (the legislators, not the professional baseball team) played alongside staff. I was not surprised to see so many Kennedy staffers gather for the funeral. Senator Frank Church of Idaho, for whom I worked for nearly two decades, died 25 years ago, but his staff still stays in touch and gets together occasionally. That’s a tribute to a really good staff and a truly great boss.
Although the toughest loss of a loved one may be felt by the spouse, Victoria Kennedy was remarkable in her composure during the public funeral ceremonies. Any observer could see why Ted Kennedy often said she saved him. Despite her own grief, apparent on her face in camera close-ups, she comforted family members and mourners alike, sometimes with a hug or a touch; other times with a warm glance and half-smile. She must have been exhausted by the end of each day, but her simple grace belied her strength and character.
An era has ended. A great teacher is gone. Have we learned the lessons he taught?