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August 28, 2009

The Last Kennedy Brother

Roy Meachum

The last time I rubbed elbows with Sen. Edward Kennedy was at Roger L. Steven’s graveside 11 years ago; he came to bring personal and family condolences to the family and their closest friends. They were close even before Mr. Stevens built the Kennedy Center and was its first chairman.


Neither Roger nor Christine Stevens believed in churches, so she asked me to conduct a service in the cemetery’s very small chapel across the street from the house where Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham lived. Compared to Roger’s memorial service that drew hundreds to the Kennedy Center a few weeks later, there were little more than 20 that cold but sunny February day. Phil Graham’s widow did not appear among the mourners; she may not have been invited.


Teddy Kennedy was there, along with his wife. Victoria Reggie came from across Lake Pontchartrain opposite New Orleans; she was a Washington attorney when they married. As far as I recall, she was the only one who offered even tentative smiles the grim morning of Roger’s departure; her husband was dour and glum. I’ve always understood: He occupied a less than desirable position in life.


When news reached me Wednesday that Senator Kennedy departed this life, I thought “Camelot” is all gone. The Kennedys had seen the musical and his wife compared John Kennedy’s White House to the mythical kingdom. I saw her on a regular basis when Jacqueline and the Secret Service brought Caroline to dance classes; I was then the administrator of the Washington National Ballet Foundation.


The youngest Kennedy did not join the Washington “court” until two years after the inauguration, taking literally his brother’s Senate seat. And that was very okay with the general public. To a degree impossible to imagine now, the Kennedys were as close as this republic will probably get to a “royal” family. Their status remained long after Robert Kennedy’s assassination; the fear of the name caused Maryland’s political bosses to deny the governor’s office to Robert’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, which enabled a Republican to win the election. The Democratic leadership didn’t care. At least the female Kennedy could not reorganize the governmental machine.


Over the years I met the senator from Massachusetts several times; when we came face-to-face at the theatre he smilingly acknowledged me as a reporter and commentator on television. From those memories, the face that has been repeatedly shown since his death has belonged to a stranger; he became older, his movements more awkward. A friend pointed out the great pressure the senator lived under.


The primary burden came with being the youngest member of his family. He had to play catch up and maintain the pace set by older brothers, egged on by the sisters. Now there remains a single child of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. Jean Kennedy Smith lives in Chicago: her husband runs her family-owned Merchandise Mart. In Papa Joe’s chauvinist society the males had to prove everything; of the girls, less was expected.


Only his death removed Edward Moore Kennedy from the competition, living up to his father’s demanding expectations. He never really ran for president; against Jimmy Carter. He expended minimally but only because he was supposed to. The man released from his mortal burdens this week, as “Waterfront’s” character played by Marlon Brando “could have been a contender.”


Ted Kennedy was a champion, in every dimension except the White House. The senator really was there for all America’s needy, especially for the sick, the lame, the blind and those not born with a Kennedy spoon in their mouths. You will not see his like again; once in my long lifetime was a miracle.


Requiescat in Pace, Teddy. As they would not say at Harvard: You done very good!

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