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A Personal Tone to Kennedy Coverage

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009

The black-and-white images -- of a skinny, short-haired Ted Kennedy, flanked by his brothers -- became video wallpaper Wednesday as television moved into mourning mode.

There was an unmistakably personal tone to the tributes, the anchors and correspondents sounding as though they, and the country, had lost a friend. Diane Sawyer talked about Kennedy's megawatt smile. Andrea Mitchell called him "the greatest senator of our generation." Brian Williams, who had flown during the night to Hyannis Port, observed: "I hope his Irishness . . . isn't lost in all this." Geraldo Rivera called him a "mentor."

"I'm not ashamed to admit it, I liked the guy," Mike Barnicle, the former Boston Globe columnist, said on NBC. "I admired the guy."

We have gathered like this so many times since the November weekend in 1963 when television helped us bid farewell to a slain president. It has become a sad ritual in recent weeks, the on-air obituaries for Walter Cronkite, Don Hewitt, Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon. The senior senator from Massachusetts was not just a "liberal lion," in the instant cliche; he was a tragic survivor, a tabloid target, the keeper of the flame, the last link to Camelot. He was a Kennedy.

News of his passing came too late for most Eastern newspapers, so they posted their pieces and pictures online, sharing cyberspace with Facebook postings and tweets. Ted Kennedy and RIP Teddy were the top trending topics on Twitter, but Mary Jo Kopechne, who died at Chappaquiddick, wasn't far behind. Kopechne was also No. 2 on Google Trends, which measures a surge in searches.

ABC was first on the air, at 1:18 a.m., with "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran getting a reporting assist from George Stephanopoulos. Soon the cable networks were going wall-to-wall, the story dominated the morning shows, and the evening newscasts relegated other headlines to the final minutes. By last night, the broadcast networks were airing prime-time specials and CNN was carrying the HBO documentary "Teddy: In His Own Words." Time and Newsweek are publishing commemorative editions on Friday. Hachette Books announced it would rush out 1.5 million copies of Kennedy's recently completed memoir in mid-September, and by Wednesday "True Compass" ranked No. 15 on Amazon.

Washington can be the smallest of towns, and many in the media recounted touching encounters with the late senator. Chris Matthews, a Type 2 diabetic, spoke of Kennedy calling him with advice after the "Hardball" host had an attack of hypoglycemia. Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, recalled on CNN that when his father had received a cancer diagnosis, Kennedy called and "gave me the name of one of the world's foremost experts in cancer treatment. He said, 'He's expecting your call. I just talked to him.' And he helped pave the way to get my father the treatment that, frankly, saved his life."

Such gestures were not limited to liberals. Conservative author David Frum said he detested Kennedy politically until conservative activist Barbara Olson was killed in the 9/11 hijackings. Olson's husand "Ted asked some friends to help with the deluge of messages of condolence, and my wife Danielle volunteered for the job," Frum wrote. "Among the letters: a lengthy handwritten note by the senator so elegant and decent, so eloquent and (fascinatingly) written in so beautiful a hand that as to revolutionize one's opinion of the man who wrote it."

Political reporters seemed to forge a bond with the Democrat. "I watched him sing 'Sweet Caroline' to his treasured niece, Caroline Kennedy, on her 21st birthday," Jonathan Alter recalled in Newsweek. Wrote Time's Joe Klein, who met Kennedy in 1970: "We were never friends; our relationship was professional, but keen and, ultimately, affectionate."

The Boston Globe, once seen as a Kennedy house organ, took note of his "personal and political failings" in its lead story Wednesday. Globe reporters are suddenly in demand; Peter Canellos signed a contributor agreement with CBS, and Susan Milligan with ABC.

Kennedy's relations with the media were not always so smooth. He was savaged after struggling to explain why he wanted to be president in a 1979 CBS interview with Roger Mudd. Anthony Lewis called him "stumbling, inarticulate, unconvincing" in the New York Times. "And not just on Chappaquiddick: his responses in general seemed to be those of a man unsure of the whys and wheres in his life -- unsure of who he was."

After that losing campaign, coverage of Kennedy's legislative accomplishments was punctuated by reports of his drinking and womanizing. But at some point, perhaps after his second marriage, to Victoria Reggie, Kennedy attained senior statesman status. When Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama last year, news organizations trumpeted his echo of his brother's inaugural proclamation that "the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans."

Some of those born decades after the assassination of his brothers were nonetheless moved. On Twitter, Meghan McCain, daughter of last year's GOP presidential nominee, called Kennedy's passing "so incredibly sad especially given that my memories of him are that of a politician who reached across party lines. . . . I remember his voice more than anything the times we met, being larger than life and booming."

But for older members of the punditocracy, the remembrances of Ted Kennedy were inevitably entwined with those of JFK and RFK, and later JFK Jr. An MSNBC promo touted its programming as "an American icon remembered," and given the ratings-driven repetitiveness of television, the dream shall never die, at least not for many days to come.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN as a contributor and host of its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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