Jack, Bobby, Teddy and me
And then there were none.
No other set of brother-senators has ever dominated half a century of American political life the way the Kennedys did. The lives of all of them, and the deaths of two of them, lifted us up–and then crushed us–like nothing else ever could.
My father was the fiercest Democrat I have ever known. Like Joe Kennedy, he imbued all of his children, and his grandchildren, with his own values. For Phil Kaiser’s descendants, that meant an unquenchable passion for justice.
I was nine years old when I fell in love with John F. Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960. He was young, he was beautiful, and he had the most amazing hair I had ever seen. The mystical connection he established between himself and the millions who adored him was unlike anything any other politician has managed since.
In Mrs. Green’s 5th grade class, I was Kennedy in our mock debate, and Steve Lane was Nixon, and in my memory, at least, my Kennedy crushed Steve’s Nixon with a series of seemingly unanswerable questions–nearly all of them lifted from an indispensable booklet published by the Democratic National Committee. (When I saw Steve again forty years later, he apologized for having been on the wrong side!) I spent all of election day at my local polling place in Potomac, Maryland, festooned with Kennedy campaign buttons–and I was utterly baffled when my Republican neighbors delivered our precinct to Richard Nixon. I had no idea I was living in a Republican neighborhood.
On January 20th, 1961, I got up early to shovel the snow out of our suburban driveway so that my mother could drive me downtown to watch the inaugural parade. When Kennedy’s open car passed in front of me and my shivering pal in the reviewing stand, I shouted out, “Good luck, Jack!” When the new president jerked his head around to look in my direction, my friend and I were certain he had heard me. (I lost track of that friend when we moved abroad later that year, but when he read that passage in my first book, twenty-eight years later, he turned to his wife and exclaimed, “That’s me!”)
I was ten when my father was chosen by Kennedy to be his Ambassador (“extraordinary and plenipotentiary”) to Senegal and Mauritania–my father’s reward, in part, for working with his college roommate, Byron White, for Citizens for Kennedy in Illinois. Bobby came to my father’s swearing-in ceremony at the State Department, and that was the only time I shook one of the brothers’ hands.
Teddy White was a good friend of my family when he published The Making of the President, 1960–an extended love-letter to Jack which also transformed the way American reporters have covered politics ever since. When I read it as a young teenager, it was also the book that made me want to write nonfiction myself.
When the Kennedys decided to give Teddy Jack’s old Senate seat in 1962, even the Kaisers thought this was an extreme example of the first family’s extraordinary sense of entitlement. (Up until then, Teddy had been most famous for cheating on a Spanish exam at Harvard, although–like his brother Bobby before him–he had also won a varsity letter on his college football team.)
I was thirteen when we were back in the states on home leave the year after that. I was sitting in my 8th grade history class at Thomas W. Pyle junior high school on November 22nd, when a student with a transistor radio ran in and said, “Kennedy has been shot!” Our beloved teacher, Mr. Buckley, had worked in one of Kennedy’s Senate campaigns in Massachusetts, and he worshiped JFK as much as anyone did. “It can’t be true,” he said. It was 1:49 in the afternoon on the East Coast. When it turned out that it was true, Mr. Buckley was so overcome, he stayed out of a school for a month.
My parents picked me up at school that Friday afternoon. I remember it being a very, very dark afternoon. That weekend there were torrential rains in Washington. One of my thirteen year-old classmates wrote a poem. Part of it said, “those were surely the tears of God.”
My father was invited to view the president’s casket at the White House and for some reason I was already downtown. But he decided I wasn’t dressed well enough to accompany him, so he went to the White House alone. “We’ll never laugh again,” Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory said to Pat Moynihan that weekend. “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again,” Moynihan replied. “We’ll just never be young again.”
Four and a half years later, that part of America that yearned for a restoration went crazy all over again, mobbing Bobby Kennedy wherever he went as a presidential candidate, stealing his cufflinks and squeezing his hands until they bled. I was clean for Gene McCarthy, so I hated Bobby that spring, for stealing McCarthy’s thunder by coming into the race, after McCarthy had come close to beating Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Then Bobby, too, was murdered, and the whole country went numb. “Now R.F.K.”–that was the whole headline in the “extra” edition of The New York Post.
Murray Kempton spoke for millions of us that weekend. The great liberal columnist (who was also a McCarthy delegate to the Democratic convention that year) had excoriated Bobby when he first entered the race (he has “come down from the hills to shoot the wounded” Kempton had written). But now Kempton was just as devastated as everyone else: “The language of dismissal becomes horrible once you recognize the shadow of death over every public man. For I had forgotten, from being bitter about a temporary course of his, how much I liked Senator Kennedy and how much he needed to know he was liked. Now that there is in life no road at whose turning we could meet again, the memory of having forgotten that will always make me sad and indefinitely make me ashamed.”
Then all the pain and all the hope and all the psychodrama which was never far from the fabled family descended on to Teddy’s shoulders. And he was never more magnificent than he was that weekend. When he delivered his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the fact that he sounded almost exactly like his brother Jack made the whole thing even more poignant.
The last brother began by quoting words Bobby had spoken to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966. “There is discrimination in this world, and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nations grow rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere… The answer is to rely on youth–not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity…A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that `all men are created equal.’”
Then Teddy spoke for himself: “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life–to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.” Here, his voice was breaking: “As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
`Some men see things as they are and say why.
`I dream things that never were, and say why not?’”
(I only met Jackie Kennedy once. When I told her I had written a book about the ‘60’s, she said, “Well, I suppose if you were a dress designer or something like Oleg Cassini, they were fun. But I never miss the ‘60’s at all!!” )
Chappaquiddick came only thirteen months after Teddy delivered his eulogy for Bobby. Then Teddy was re-elected to the Senate in 1970, but he lost his job as Senate whip to Robert Byrd. As John Broder put it in the Times today, “his heart did not seem to be in his work any longer.” But after the loss of his position in the Senate leadership, he seemed to snap out of it–and he began a long and illustrious career as one of the Senate’s lions.
In 1980 he ran for president–even after he had humiliated himself when Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted the job, and the candidate didn’t really have an answer. The race split the party, and helped Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the fall. Teddy’s speech at the Democratic convention that year is still remembered as magical, but his campaign for president was far from his finest moment.
He voted against the war in Iraq, and in 2004, he delivered a brilliant speech delineating every lie and deception of the Bush administration on its way to that catastrophe. (Read it today at Juan Cole.)
His last important act came in January of last year, when he and his niece Caroline literally passed the torch to a new generation by endorsing Barack Obama for president: “I feel change in the air!” he shouted. “What about you?…I believe there is one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history. He understands what Dr. Martin Luther King called, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’”
With those words, he had given Obama the momentum he needed to get all the way to the White House.
For decades, health care was one of Teddy’s signature issues. Now, if only the Congress can summon the courage to pass genuine reform, the senior Senator from Massachusetts will get the legacy he so richly deserves.