Ted Kennedy’s quiet compassion

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I have spent much of the day thinking of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and of which news reports describe his legacy well. Throughout the day, I kept returning to remarks that another Catholic veteran of politics, Chris Matthews, made on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. (Morning Joe has not posted a video clip of Matthews’ story, but I’m embedding a solid, richly detailed obituary by NBC news anchor Brian Williams.)

Matthews told of how G. Gordon Liddy had been sentenced to prison after refusing to testify against any of the accused parties in the Watergate scandal. As Liddy sat in prison, both his daughter and Kennedy’s daughter were graduating from an exclusive Catholic school for girls. Liddy’s daughter was feeling like a pariah, Matthews said, and Kennedy was the one parent who took a moment to speak comforting words to her. (Matthews also told the story, though in less detail, in a tribute to Kennedy that he wrote for The Daily Beast back in February.)

On Morning Joe, Matthews choked up for a moment as he finished this story. In moments like these when much of the nation pauses to mourn, TV has an emotional advantage over print. A show like Morning Joe can bring on regular guests such as Matthews and Mike Barnicle, both of whom knew Kennedy for decades, and let them riff. The result is a mixture of endearing anecdotes, laughter and tears.

On his blog, David Frum told another story of the late senator offering comfort to Ted Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died during the terrorist strikes of 9/11. An elegant handwritten note from Kennedy to Olson, Frum wrote,

did not dishonor by ignoring or denying the political differences between the two families. It fully acknowledged them — and through them expressed a deeper human awareness of shared mortality, pain, and grief. Not all chapters of his life revealed it equally, but the senator was a big soul, and in his last years, he lived his bigness fully.

Michael Sean Winters offered a measured reflection for America magazine’s In All Things blog:

Kennedy’s death is that it is personal if you are a politically engaged Catholic. His family touched ours in ways few other families do, even neighbors. How many Catholic families have a picture of Jack Kennedy on the wall next to the crucifix? And, the last one standing was Teddy. He carried on the legacy of his brothers. He was the champion, year in and year out, of so many causes at the heart of Catholic social teaching. The first thing to do in the face of this loss is to cry.

Winters acknowledged and criticized Kennedy’s divergence from Catholic teaching on abortion.

On the death of a public figure such as Sen. Kennedy, I find the greatest poignancy in the small details of off-camera life. Rarely does the omnibus obituary tell me much that will move my soul. But offbeat items like these help me to remember the vulnerable and struggling person behind the legend, and to feel a deeper sense of loss at his death. When I want to better understand a figure who was larger than life, I’m thankful for the wide variety of sources made possible by a multimedia age.

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  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Here in Nashville, Richard Land talked about how Kennedy had once invited him to his Senate office, while the two were working together on tobacco regulation. Land said he hadn’t realize how much pain Kennedy suffered from a back injury in the 1960– saying it was painful even to watch Kennedy walk. He also said that Kennedy had the rare gift of befriending people he disagreed with politically– and could “leave the fight on the Senate floor”– something he said was sadly missing today.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Watching CNN and listening to NPR, I heard about the many times Kennedy reached out to families going through crises…as you said, Doug, quietly. His story seems more like Dostoevsky than O’Neill — one of tragedy and atonement. I wonder if the press will pick up on the Christian themes that seem to weave through his life.

  • Francis X. Maier

    If anyone else had lived the privileged, morally problematic life this man did, there would be very few encomia over the grave. May God bring him to eternal life. But in the meantime, the MSM need to slow down the Michael Jackson treatment.

  • joel

    … Enough of Camelot already! He was just a another career politician who did his time in Congress instead of where he should have been, thanks to money and connections.

  • Jerry

    Maybe I’m old school, but I was taught not to speak ill of the deceased but to honor what was best about their lives and to leave an accounting of their deeds to God and history. So I appreciate this topic highlighting the best of his life.

  • Francis X. Maier

    Jerry, you’re right: Only God reads and knows the individual soul. But in the meantime, here on earth, the MSM are weaving a revisionist account of the man designed for one purpose — passing a very contested healthcare plan. Media coverage of the Kennedy legacy already resembles a commercial for administration policy, and it’s hard to imagine this as coincidental. So there is no way to avoid judging that legacy frankly and unsentimentally.

  • Dave

    The thread that runs through the tributes is Kennedy’s ability to reach out on the human level to his ideological opponents. This is the mark of a great personality, not just a political characteristic. It used to be common in D.C., and the lack of it these days shows up in brittle partisanship tainting every issue. Kennedy was the last of a breed of Senator, not just the last Kennedy brother.

  • Jerry

    Francis X. Maier, you’re reading very different coverage than I am. The stories I’ve read and seen talk about the passing of Camelot and celebrate Senator Kennedy’s life.

  • Francis X. Maier

    Jerry, then you didn’t watch network news last night. That was the consistent undercurrent.

  • Jerry

    Francis X.Maier, you’re right – I watch very, very little network news outside of PBS Newshour sometimes and as little cable news as I can (it’s inflicted on my when I exercise). I prefer to get my news from the newspaper, what’s left of it, and online from newspaper web sites.