Somewhat to my own surprise, I find myself moved and strongly affected by the death this week of Senator Edward Kennedy. Writing as a Jewish American, it’s easy to find reasons to regret the senator’s passing. He was a great friend of Israel’s and a very forceful advocate for Soviet Jewry in the days when it was not at all clear whether or when Jewish emigration in serious numbers from the Soviet Union was ever going to be permitted. He was also strongly in favor of the United States recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a long-overdue step our country has never formally taken, and he was well known for his very strong opposition to the Arab boycott of Israel and Israeli businesses. And it is hard not to respect the man’s half-century-long record of service in the Senate, including his life-long campaign to bring universal health care to Americans or any number of his more successful initiatives on behalf of civil rights. But the aspect of Senator Kennedy’s life and career that has engaged me the most emotionally in these last couple of days has been only tangentially related to his resume.
I was seven years old when the senator’s brother won the presidential election in 1960 and I was still only ten when President Kennedy died. Like all Americans alive at the time, I remember where I was when I heard the news on that horrible day: in Mrs. D’Antona’s fifth grade classroom at P.S. 196 (which all of my local readers have passed a million times when driving down the Grand Central Parkway through Forest Hills—it’s the low building between the Parkway Hospital and the Sterling Glen Assisted Living Facility). In fact, I think I can still remember Mr. Tauschner, our principal, coming into class to tell us what had happened and then to usher us into the auditorium where a television had been set up for us to watch. The next few days, culminating in the assassin’s own assassination the following Sunday morning, I also remember far more clearly than any other set of four or five days from my childhood years. (I remember where I was when I heard that news as well: in Mrs. Bergman’s Hebrew School classroom at the Forest Hills Jewish Center.) And so the stage was set for me to measure the years of my own regular-sized life against the larger-than-life drama of the family America somehow managed to infuse with a kind of celebrity status that dwarfed the fame of “real” celebrities and made of the Kennedys the closest America has come to having its own royal family. And so we moved forward, me on my path and they on theirs. I was fifteen when Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles. I was sixteen when Mary Jo Kopechne died at Chappaquiddick. I was twenty-seven when Ted Kennedy made his sole bid for the presidency, then forty-six when John Kennedy Jr. died. And now I’m ten years older than that and Senator Kennedy too has died.
My fascination with the Kennedys has waxed and waned over the years. Like many Americans, I related to the family’s travails with a mixture of sympathy and fascination bordering at least occasionally on the morbid. But mostly I felt a deep sense of connection to people with whom I could, reasonably speaking, not possibly have had less in common and whom I could not even remotely imagine feeling a reverse sense of connection with me personally. And yet the key to the Kennedy mystique lay in precisely the weird paradox that no matter how unlikely it seemed (and, no doubt, was) that they could do so, John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy somehow did have the shared ability to make us all feel that they were not only interested in us and in our welfare, but vitally so. And all three of them, I think, were as successful in politics as they were for precisely that reason. Indeed, I remember listening to President Kennedy’s inaugural address and feeling, truly against all rational odds, that he was speaking to me as I was seated in our living room watching him speak on our black-and-white television set. I felt that with Robert Kennedy as well, although not quite as strongly. But it was Edward Kennedy, the youngest of the three, who elevated this ability to connect directly with people to an art form.
Perhaps it was because he himself was so publicly flawed and in so many ways. The incident at Chappaquiddick was never really resolved in my mind, nor do I sense that any of us really knows what happened there that night. The scandal involving the senator’s involvement in his nephew’s arrest and subsequent trial for the rape of a woman he had picked up in his uncle’s company at a Palm Beach bar was never fully behind him. The rumors of his own womanizing and excessive drinking were, fair or not, part of the public portrait as well, as was his much publicized divorce from his first wife in 1982. (It seems to me that his second marriage in 1992 received far less media attention, but that has far more to say about American culture than it does about the individuals involved.)
And yet, throughout it all and especially in the last fifteen years, Kennedy assumed the mantle of real leadership in the Senate and became one of our truly great senators, one whom it doesn’t at all seem exaggerated to compare to Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. It isn’t only that he served in the Senate for a very long time either, although it is certainly well worth noting that in the entire history of our country only five other senators have served for more than forty years. More to the point was his (only eventually acquired) ability to find his place in history in the Senate without feeling obligated to live out his life in his brothers’ long shadows or in pursuit of his brothers’ shared dream of the presidency. Whether he would or would not have made a good or a great president is not the point, not really. For one thing, I don’t know the answer to that question nor do I imagine anyone else does. But what truly does matter, and what made Edward Kennedy a man worth emulating, was his ability to live his own life, to overcome his own shortcomings, to face down his demons, and to give himself over to the service of others without reference to past errors or the internal turmoil engendered by those errors. I wouldn’t mind if someone said as much of me one day…and it seems to me that the point is not to have as our heroes cardboard dolls dressed up in Superman costumes, but true men of valor who overcome their flaws, their past mistakes, and their instances of public humiliation to become finer versions of themselves that they themselves will into existence through the sheer force of their own focused will to change and to improve. It seems to me that having role models like that is essential if we are to grow past our own earlier and baser iterations into the people of integrity and honor we wish to be and, I believe, all can be. And it is precisely that kind of role model that I think Senator Kennedy provided for Americans of all backgrounds.
It’s just a coincidence, of course, that the senator died during this month of Elul just as we are in the midst of preparing ourselves for the High Holiday season that is almost upon us. And yet it seems to me at least fortuitous that his life has been thrust into the limelight precisely as we ponder the process by means of which we attempt to grow spiritually by willing finer versions of ourselves into existence. I don’t know if the senator would have found our traditional three-fold recipe for sustained growth through prayer, repentance, and charity at all resonant with his own efforts to grow past the earlier versions of himself into the man he wished to be and eventually did become. Nor is it my place to speculate about what Senator Kennedy would have made of the Machzor’s promise that following that three-fold path can prompt God to avert the severity of decrees promulgated against us. But his example can stand us all in good stead in the coming weeks as we contemplate a man no less flawed than heroic whose life story was one of triumph over personal tragedy and slow growth towards an ever-more-refined version of what it could possibly mean to be himself.
Slowly, the icons of my childhood are slipping away. The next generation of Kennedys seems unlikely to step into their own forebears’ footsteps as American royalty, but neither have the Clintons or the elder or younger Bushes, much less the Obamas, come close to exerting Kennedy-style influence on the American psyche. (I suppose time will tell if the Obamas manage to acquire the status of true cultural icons. But I speak here of the present, not the future.) In her great movie Across the Universe, director Julie Taymor imagined a fantasy world in which Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix somehow became the surrogate parents of the young John Lennon, thus creating a royal family so indescribably cool that it surely could have, had it only existed, given the Kennedys a serious run for their money in terms of influence, prestige, and cultural magnetism. But of course they’re gone now too, all of them disappeared into the vortex of fame, excess, and violence that characterizes the dark side of celebrity in America. And so we are left at the very end of an era contemplating Senator Kennedy’s life and wondering not specifically what could have been, but what we can learn from the story of his life as he actually lived it.
In the poem Robert Frost read at President Kennedy’s inauguration in January of 1961, he wrote about America slowly growing into itself over the long years of colonial life that preceded the American Revolution. Specifically, he framed his thoughts with these words: “Something we were withholding made us weak / until we found out that it was ourselves / we were withholding from our land of living, / and forthwith found salvation in surrender.” Those words were Robert Frost’s gift to the American people on the occasion of the inauguration of our thirty-fifth president. But for me they are just as much about the struggle for personal growth as they are about a nation’s struggle to come into existence. And for all they were spoken aloud to the senator’s brother all those many years ago on the occasion of his greatest political triumph, they encapsulate for me what made the president’s youngest brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, into a great man.