Requiem for ‘one of ours’

Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 7:01 p.m.

Editor’s Note: With the recent death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, Emmet Meara looks back fondly on the Massachusetts legend, whom he wrote about in this column, which originally appeared Sept. 2, 2008:

Guilty as charged, your honor.

I admit that I am an unabashed Kennedy supporter. Always was, always will be. I was getting all misty as Ted Kennedy addressed the Democratic convention this week, for the last time.

From the beginning I never had a chance.

My mother was born a block from the house in Brookline where John F. Kennedy was born. She grew up in Boston, where “No Irish need apply” signs were commonplace and the Brahmin Republicans ruled the roost.

On Sundays her father, born in Ballyvourney, Ireland, would hitch up his team of horses and they would ride along the Jamaicaway to the home of James Michael Curley, the first Irish-American mayor of Boston. They would just sit in the carriage and stare at the Curley “mansion,” marveling at how one of theirs had gotten so far.

We always seemed to know about Jack Kennedy from the beginning. My sister worked for a summer in a Bar Harbor hotel and JFK was there. She hated him because of the stories about him and the young waitresses. I loved him because of the stories about him and the young waitresses. He came into Sunday Mass once, on crutches. He had that glow about him and you knew he was somebody special, like Ted Williams.

Sure, the Kennedys were filthy-rich. But they seemed to care about the little guy. When the Republicans complained about JFK being a millionaire’s son and never working a day in his life, one West Virginia coal miner told him, “You haven’t missed a thing.”

At the 1960 convention, I went to bed before JFK officially won the nomination. Not my mother. She wasn’t taking any chances. She waited until Wisconsin put him over the top, then finally went to bed. She was always proud of that.

We watched every second of the inauguration and the “torch has passed to a new generation” speech. We watched him and his beautiful family for those 1,000 days. He was one of ours.

Then, we watched in horror at the assassination in Dallas and believed every conspiracy theory that came along. No one could believe that a two-bit book repository worker with a bargain-basement rifle could blow the head off the president, not without help. Still don’t.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan said then, “There is no point being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess we thought we had more time.”

We all did.

We were still reeling from that loss when Bobby Kennedy decided to run for president in 1968. I was a Eugene McCarthy man myself, but Bobby was a Kennedy, after all. I was slowly coming around after he won California.

We sat in the car in North Attleboro, of all places, listening to the radio broadcast on the night he was shot, and heard the news early in the morning that he, too, was dead — shot by another “armed cretin,” as the radio announcer put it.

We suffered with Teddy Kennedy as he spoke at RFK’s funeral, barely getting the words out. Bobby always said, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

They were all like members of our family, cousins maybe.

I was working in the darkroom (imagine that) of the Gloucester Times in 1969, listening to the radio reports on the moon landing when they announced Teddy’s car had been found in the water, somewhere on an island called Chappaquiddick. We assumed he too was dead.

He wasn’t, but Mary Jo Kopechne was, in Teddy’s car. The story made no sense as they left the girl in the car for hours in the water before they called for help. Imagine being that girl’s father.

Over the years, we have forgiven the unforgivable as Teddy has given up his White House dreams and labored in the U.S. Senate, where he is generally acknowledged to be among the greatest of his generation. His work is reflected in how intensely the opposition despises him.

Teddy announced at the convention that the torch had once again “passed to a new generation,” to a black man, Barack Obama. I watched as African-American men and women cried when Michelle Obama spoke from the convention stage, a place where many of them never expected to see one of theirs standing.

I knew how they felt, a little bit. And I loved the speech by Ted Kennedy, his white mop of hair strangely undiminished by treatment for his terminal brain cancer. He was still one of ours.

Guilty, guilty as charged, your honor.

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