The written responses to Ted Kennedy’s life – from newspaper obits and considerations to blog posts and tweets – have spanned a range. They’ve produced some good writing too.
The most impressive and winning aspect of his personality was the way he kept on going, with good humor, despite defeats and tragedies of all sorts and vanished ambitions. With his physical bulk he made me think of some big, proud, beautiful animal — a bull in the ring with lances hanging out of its neck, a lion or elephant that has been tattered or wounded but not brought down. As everyone has noted, his most impressive and dignified period was after he realized he would never be president but would still bring campaign-scale passion and charisma (overused term, but right in this case) to causes he cared about….
A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life — the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick — but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul. And his big, open heart. A powerful, brave, often-wounded animal at last brought down.
He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.
And then, of course, there have been the dissenters, less enamored of the redemptive tale, for whom Kennedy’s privileged life, his weaknesses of nature, the central sin of Chappaquiddick, and the politics themselves bore a hole to somewhere far from heaven out from which he could never be raised. Most extreme were the Andrew Breitbarts, people whose idea of political contestation is removed from the vulgar nature and crude insult of frat-jockery only in that they now persuade themselves they engage in the serious work of grownups. Grant could raise his hat to Lee at Appomattox, but for Breitbart an imperfect fellow citizen with a lifetime of public service, but different views on health care and the minimum wage, remained, upon his death, a “pile of human excrement.”
It may be that the first nobility of the truly good people who pursue a public life lies in the good they pursue for all. Surely the second is that they accept to live in a world broad in the array of its strong opinion but narrow in the range of its human empathy. The political fray, we are always told, and can clearly see if we watch at all, is not for the weak of heart or stomach, or those who are prone to cut. But neither is real war, and many a warrior has felt the human nature of his enemy even as he killed him. The shame of Achilles was not in that he slew Hector, but that he disgraced him.
When I teach novice students of literature, the very first tendency invariably to be dealt with is their eagerness to judge. All the grand display of character weakness for review in the great narratives of our cultures – the committed and omitted sins, the violence, the infidelities, the lies and mental reservations – occur to the students at first as offered to us only for the comforts of our condemnation. Somehow – and we can all speculate how – they naively perceive the flaws of others as they have been told in story by writers of talent as Sunday school sermons of the wrong life, without regard to the grays of their own matter.
The life of literature, however (not the academic study of it, in which, as the modern joke goes, Emma Bovary is “just another trope”) offers up a more expansive vision, of our human failings, a sharper view of our surprising graces. This kind of insight might inform our public life. What true value would literature have if it couldn’t actually deepen our humanity – just as religion does at its best? And, of course, there are people who enter that life who are schooled in the “humanities” in their truest sense. But a lot of people who participate in public life – from loud town meetings to quiet legislative chambers – have fled those fields of understanding and are not seeking such insights, and all the fighting ends up fitting them with protective armor, including visors, so they might not be truly touched in the melee.
So we end up distorting the measure of man, and woman. Public figures who pretend to more in their service than the common and the functional – those who reach for greatness – begin in our imagination with unsoiled souls they can never maintain. A Martin Luther King Jr. is discovered to have perhaps plagiarized elements of his doctoral dissertation, and desired women other than his wife, and those who wished him ill to begin, pygmies in the comparison, reach quickly for the rope with which to topple him. In contrast, the seventeenth century French essayist Jean de La Bruyère observed, “The nearer we approach great men, the clearer we see that they are men.” There are many variations on this idea from many sources, the most routinely offered being “No man is a hero to his valet.” Less well known is the follow up: “This is not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.” What we miss in the hypocritical insistence on saintliness is that the achievement of a King is all the greater in that, yes, he was human, just a man, a frail vessel like all around him – and still he did what he did.
Even before the moving eulogies of yesterday – Ted Kennedy Jr., President Obama, more human and filled with emotion than we have ever seen him – I had watched the memorial at the Kennedy School of Government the night before. But I had missed some, and so I caught up with some of what I missed online. I began to watch the video of Joe Kennedy III’s testament of love to his uncle, of the senator’s indomitable spirit, but my connection was slow. Not to waste time I began to read in other windows as the stream stopped and started. I found Joyce Carol Oates’s piece in England’s Guardian newspaper, an article with themes not unlike those here. She pursues the theme of the “fortunate fall,” as we encounter it, for instance, in Conrad’s Lord Jim, in which Jim spends his life attempting to expiate a great sin.
Oates, of course, some years ago, wrote a fictionalized version of the Chappaquiddick incident, and she does not skimp, in the Guardian, in her brute presentation of what occurred and of how Mary Jo Kopechne died. Whenever the video stream restarted, I would quickly return to it before its stopping again. When it did stop, I would return to reading Oates. What I experienced, then, back and forth, many times, was a kind of impromptu moment of whole and simultaneous vision, a balancing of a life: the worst a man had ever done unfolding in time beside the stories of his virtues. Or as the Roman Triumph had it, the conquering hero rode through the city on a chariot, hailed by the citizens, a slave holding a laurel crown above his head and murmuring in his ear, “Memento homo” – “Remember, you are mortal.”
I read that a week before he died, the family took Ted Kennedy for a final sailboat ride. On a route and in a location that evaded prying eyes and paparazzi, they brought him to the boat, lifted him up in his wheel chair, and set sail, as he had done so many times, into the Atlantic waters off Cape Cod. In art, one has to choose, one gets to, where to end a life. Kennedy lived a while longer, and I don’t know, but it may be that little followed in those final days but drugged insensibility or unconsciousness. I have seen this twice myself.
So I imagine Kennedy’s chair set toward the bow, his face into the wind. He is weak and death is near. He is surrounded, as some fortunate among us are, by family and love – as Mary Jo Kopechne was not. The white caps of the steel gray waters heave. The dome of sky is marbled with ocean cumulus. The boat sails finely over the sea. And the visions come. The parents. The brothers. The shallow, muddy waters. The thread of loss through a lifetime. The great labors, great achievements. The bonhomie. Late love. Faith. Loyalty. The imperfect self. The ebbing tide.
Soon, because I make it so, and it might have been, the sound begins to fade. The voices of those around him recede into a trickle, into nothing. His eyes rest on the seam of sea and sky and on the infinite where they meet. Over his face, in time, has come not a smile, but a final, complete, and ultimate recognition. The wind flits across his cheeks. It flaps in the sails.