Aside from the (deeply disputed) numbers of people who gathered on the Mall last weekend, it’s difficult to imagine that very many people who have ever opened a history book could have confused the message and purpose of the August 28, 1963 civil rights rally with the “Waterworld of Self-Pity” one Glenn Beck starred in 47 years later. Back then, black folk endured enormous hardships to travel across the country without access to bathrooms, hotels, and restaurants for hundreds of miles at a time. Washington was terrified of what might transpire as so many “negroes” had never been allowed to gather in one place at one time before in the whole history of the United States.
It all went like a dream, of course: a moment that would live forever in the minds not only of the people who witnessed it, but for decades, possibly centuries later, as students studied it in school and scholars examined it with Talmudic scrutiny. Jack Kennedy, who labored mightily to get the march called off, watched King’s speech on television at the White House and told his advisers, “He’s damned good. Damned good!”
Indeed, the whole thing was damned good—a magnificent spectacle of hope, optimism, and a belief that the promise contained in the word “America” would soon be redeemed for all of its citizens. Indeed, The New York Times called it “the greatest assembly for redress of grievances the capital has ever seen.” Its influential television critic Jack Gould observed that “the gentle entrance and exit of so much petitioning humanity was an editorial in movement.”
It’s impossible to know just how many hearts King and company inspired that day. Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose brother, the president, had barred him from attending the march owing to his fears of violence, watched it from his office. He recalled, in his posthumously published memoir, that he felt himself “fully baptized into the civil rights movement that day. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has spoken of his dream that had become my own.”
And make them his own he did. In fact, while so much of the media is waxing one way or another on Beck and King, I’d like to take a moment this vacation week to recall this time last year, when the nation was both mourning and celebrating the life of one man King inspired.
Edward Moore Kennedy was born on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, his parents’ ninth child. (They wisely resisted their son Jack’s request that he be named “George Washington Kennedy.”) President Herbert Hoover sent his mother flowers when he was born, together with a mailed note that was delivered with five cents due. He received his first communion at age five from the Pope.
His political beginnings were not auspicious. When his father, Joe Kennedy, decided that Ted would claim his brother’s old Senate seat in 1962, the outcome of the race was a foregone conclusion despite his lack of relevant political experience. (The Kennedy family had found a family friend to keep the seat warm until Ted was old enough to run himself.)
It yielded plenty of drama nevertheless. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Eddie McCormack, famously observed, “If his name was Edward Moore, with his qualifications, with your qualifications, Teddy, your candidacy would be a joke, but nobody’s laughing because his name is not Edward Moore. It’s Edward Moore Kennedy.”
It was a popular view at the time. None other than Reinhold Niebuhr termed Kennedy’s candidacy “an affront to political decency.” At an angry meeting in Cambridge, law professor Mark DeWolfe Howe spoke, infuriated by Ted’s meager qualifications. “Relax, Mark,” answered Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy supporter, “Ted’s a candidate for the United States Senate, not the faculty of Harvard Law School.”
Another inevitable moment of drama occurred when the story of Ted’s involuntary departure from Harvard—he had cajoled another student to take a Spanish exam in his stead—fell into the hands of the local media. The White House staff stepped into the breach to try to get the story killed, albeit without much success.
“Jesus,” Jack Kennedy complained, “we’re having more fucking trouble with this than we did with the Bay of Pigs.” National Security Adviser (and ex-Harvard Dean) McGeorge Bundy added, ruefully, “Yes, and with just about the same results."
Even so, as his longtime friend and chronicler the late liberal journalist Jack Newfield recalled, “Most pundits saw him as a dummy who had cheated on an exam at Harvard to stay eligible for football and who was dependent on an excellent staff to compensate for his inexperience.”
His early years in the Senate were marked, of course, by tragedy. On November 22, 1963, while Kennedy presided over the Senate—a job usually forced on new members—he learned of his brother’s murder in Dallas. With Bobby needed in Washington, Ted had the unhappy task of telling the patriarch that he had lost another son.
“There’s been a bad accident,” he explained to the old man, who had been largely disabled by that time by a significant stroke. “The president has been hurt very badly. As a matter of fact, he died.” Then the son dropped to his knees and wept.
Next came a horrific plane accident. On June 19, 1964, Kennedy’s private plane crashed in bad weather in an apple orchard in western Massachusetts. Both the pilot and an aide named Edward Moss died in the crash. Kennedy was pulled from the wreckage with a punctured lung, broken ribs, internal bleeding, and a severe back injury that would pain him for the rest of his life.
It was at this point that the senator decided to catch up on the schooling he failed to take seriously as a student, and engaged various members of the Harvard faculty as his personal tutors. His wife at the time joked, “Teddy’s reading the books he should have read in college.” This was also the moment that led to Kennedy’s passion for health care reform, one that was redoubled by his son’s fight with cancer in the decade to come.
Tragedy struck him and his family again in 1968 with Bobby’s murder during the presidential campaign—a campaign that Ted had opposed, unsuccessfully, in discussions with his brother and the family’s advisers. Here again, he was given the horrible task of informing his father of the death of yet another of his four sons, leaving only Ted behind.
Though few people would have predicted it at the time, the youngest Kennedy was, as it happened, in the process of building a 47-year career in the Senate that would distinguish him in the history books to a degree that few legislators in America could hope to approach and certainly none who would proudly call themselves “liberal.”
He learned from first Senate tutor, Phil Hart of Michigan, that the secret to success in the Senate was to invite others to take credit for your work, and Ted took this to heart. Gregarious by nature, especially after a few scotches, Kennedy also showed a great talent for crossing political and ideological lines to work with sworn political adversaries and virtually anyone regardless of political views, including irredeemable Southern racists in his own party on the one hand and some of most conservative members of an increasingly conservative Republican Party on the other.
Kennedy would, over the course of the next half century, establish himself as among the most effective legislators in the history of the body, a man whose legacy would one day be ranked with those of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. As Newfield notes, from the time he delivered his maiden speech on the floor in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kennedy could claim to have played a pivotal role in:
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965
- The expansion of the voting franchise to 18-year-olds
- The $24 billion Kennedy-Hatch law of 1997, which provided health insurance to children with a new tax on tobacco
- Two increases in the minimum wage
- The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which made health insurance portable for workers
- The 1988 law that allocated $1.2 billion for AIDS testing, treatment, and research
- The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act
- The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act
- The 1,200-page education reform act in 2001, which he negotiated directly with President George W. Bush and his staff
Kennedy also helped abolish the poll tax, liberalize immigration laws, fund cancer research, and create the Meals on Wheels program for shut-ins and the elderly. In 1985 Kennedy and Republican Lowell Weicker co-sponsored the legislation that imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The bill became law despite opposition from Bob Dole, a filibuster by Jesse Helms, and a veto by President Ronald Reagan. Only Kennedy could have mustered the votes to override by 78 to 21 a veto from Reagan at the height of his power.
And Kennedy ignited—and then led like a commando—the successful resistance to Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination by Reagan in 1987. Kennedy’s passionate opposition from day one helped keep abortion legal in America. If confirmed, Bork would have provided the fifth vote to repeal Roe v. Wade. Instead, Reagan was forced to nominate Anthony Kennedy in Bork’s place, and Justice Kennedy has supported the retention of legal abortion as settled precedent.
His final achievement—the one to which he dedicated more of himself than to any other—came after his death: the passage of Barack Obama’s health care reform plan in 2010. During the vote, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who, at 92, had only a few more months to live, deviated from the protocol and shouted “This is for my friend Ted Kennedy.”
It behooves to remember how many moments of the deepest despair Ted Kennedy lived through, how many mistakes of his own he added to those obstacles life had dealt him, and how, despite his lack of apparent political promise at the time of his initial election to the Senate, how much he made of a life dedicated to an institution that appears designed to frustrate just such effort. Even accounting for all the privilege Kennedy enjoyed, and the sometimes infuriating manner in which he took advantage of it, I find that life inspiring, and hope that on this, the first anniversary of his death, you will, too—no matter who happens to be rallying this year on the steps of the Capitol.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.