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"Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."
They are the words of the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and they seem as if they were penned for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who persevered through tragedy and always did so with a great sense of humor and a love for laughter.
There are many things to say in remembering Senator Kennedy. There's the passion for helping the downtrodden, the commitment to human rights, the determination to carry the torch for the ideals and the dreams of his brothers, John and Robert. And there are the burdens of tragedy, the lost opportunities for greatness, the failure to achieve health care reform in his lifetime, the scandals that caused so much harm to himself and those who were scandalized.
But in the search for the enduring traits that Kennedy leaves behind, humor should not be overlooked. He liked to laugh and his laughter and playfulness cut across all boundaries geographic and otherwise.
That should be remembered as the somber tributes continue and the country prepares for a world-class Irish wake.
I had a chance to see Ted Kennedy in one of his last public appearances in Boston prior to his diagnosis for brain cancer.
It was at the Kennedy Library in Boston in early May, 2008 at the annual gathering for the Profiles in Courage award which honors leaders in public service in America. And there was Ted, looking great in a tuxedo, and on stage with his beloved niece, Caroline.
I will hold that memory of the way he worked the room and convinced everyone there that he knew them and somehow managed to conveyed a knowing sense of compassion with a wink and a handshake. I’d covered Kennedy on different issues, including his stand on Northern Ireland, the war in Iraq, but also the family’s darker side, including the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith, an allegation that came out of a night of hard partying in the family’s Palm Beach, Florida estate on Easter weekend.
I’d seen him and studied him and taken notes on what he said in many settings, but it never ceased to amaze me how he worked a room.
Maybe they were just the gifts of a lifelong politician, but something far deeper was there as well. It was a genuine passion for the little guy, a fighting spirit that was always framed by genuine laughter and joy.
On the stage that night, Ted Kennedy sang a Broadway show tune and danced a soft shoe and the whole time he looked like he was having the time of his life. All the remembrance and the tragedy and the weight that surrounds the Kennedy Library was there, but he danced on like the old Irish ballad, the Lord of the Dance, and it felt in that moment like he would always be there. It was just a few weeks later that his diagnosis of brain cancer was announced.
I would see him again, but not laughing. Instead he was focused and serious and impassioned and that was the night of his endorsement of Barack Obama for president in the heat of the Democratic campaign.
Last August, he went on to deliver what was his last great speech during the Democratic Convention. Kennedy spoke powerfully and delivered an address that echoed his famous 1980 convention speech that is now echoing across every broadcast honoring him from America to Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe and the Middle East.
“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Those words will echo for a very long time, and so will his laughter.