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.