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The Kennedy Farewell

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009 8:40 AM

My first reaction was as a journalist: Had Ted Kennedy died too late to make the newspapers? Who would the morning shows book? Would the coverage go on for days?

But within moments I was flooded with memories of the senator, entwined with images of Jack and Bobby. And that's why the daylong tributes yesterday seemed so personal: The senior Democrat from Massachusetts was a presence in our lives for so many decades, not just as a powerful lawmaker but as the last carrier of the Camelot torch.

I was looking at the Boston Globe's terrific coverage and choked up when I saw a brief clip of Ted delivering the eulogy at RFK's funeral. ("A good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.") For anyone who lived through the twin assassinations of the 1960s, there was the almost unimaginable burden that fell on Kennedy's shoulders, and which persisted through later tragedies, such as the plane crash that killed JFK Jr. a decade ago.

I interviewed him during his 1980 presidential bid, as a young reporter for the Washington Star, and was struck by how inarticulate he could seem; while it wasn't quite a Roger Mudd moment, he offered little more than cliches. But months later I was in Madison Square Garden, watching him raise the roof with the "dream shall never die" speech, the best crescendo to a political oration that I have ever seen.

Did some journalists agree with Kennedy politically? Probably. But one thing you can't take away from the man is the affection that Republicans had for him, how he was a dealmaker who worked with Orrin Hatch and John McCain and helped George W. Bush pass his No Child Left Behind law.

Ted Kennedy was a flawed man, as anyone familiar with Chappaquiddick well knows. He both benefited from the aura surrounding his family and carried it as a lifelong albatross.

I thought the media overreacted last year when Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama -- who didn't even win the Massachusetts primary -- but in retrospect, there was a quality of passing the baton to the next generation. The president was his usual controlled self when he read a statement about Kennedy's death, but Joe Biden teared up while remembering his longtime friend. It was an extraordinary television moment, the vice president of the United States grieving before the cameras, and very real in a way that all the antiseptic statements issued yesterday were not.

Here is my report:

"The black-and-white images -- of a skinny, short-haired Ted Kennedy, flanked by his brothers -- became video wallpaper yesterday 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 husband '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."

Now for a look at other coverage.

Politico says Kennedy, well, hung in there:

"The youngest member of his generation did not have the cool grace of John F. Kennedy, the dazzling wit, or the easy command of language. He did not have Robert F. Kennedy's lean, ascetic features or electric sense of purpose. He spent decades in Washington as a contemporary and sometimes painfully mortal figure, rather than one shrouded in history and myth. At the end, his death did not come in a horrible jolt of violence -- the only one of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy's four sons of which this can be said.

"What this Kennedy had instead during a lumbering and uneven public career was longevity. He was elected to the Senate 47 years ago this autumn, when nearly 65 percent of Americans now alive were not yet born. And it turns out longevity creates its own kind of charisma and myth-making power."

At the Daily Beast, Chris Matthews recalls the legacy of violence: "There were constant death threats arriving at his office. I, myself, recall the sight of Ted Kennedy sitting up there behind the big table at a Senate hearing back in the early 1970s. His eyes studied every person who came in the door. Wouldn't you? He'd lost two brothers in eight years both to strangers bent on horror."

Joe Klein begins by recalling their first encounter, in 1970:

"He seemed a ghost the day I met him . . . He was scared catatonic, of course. Scared of death, obviously. There was no reason to believe, in a nation of nutballs, that he would be allowed to continue, unshot. But he was frightened of more profound things as well -- overwhelmed by his own humanity in the face of his brothers' immortality, convinced that he'd never measure up, that Joe and Jack and Bobby had been the best of the Kennedys.

"He was the baby; his political career -- the premature ascension to the Senate at the age of 30 -- was a family conceit, the closest thing to a regency appointment the Senate had ever seen. He was not only the baby, but also the screwup -- cheating on his Spanish test in college, boozing and womanizing well beyond the requisite Kennedy-legacy level, and then Chappaquiddick -- and even after Chappaquiddick, after he had somehow allowed a young woman to die, they still wanted him to run for president. There was no way to convince them that he was a hollow shell of the dream."

The Nation's Robert Scheer attests to the private Kennedy:

"The light has gone out, and with it that infectious warm laugh and intensely progressive commitment of the best of the Kennedys. Not, at this point, to take anything away from the memory of his siblings -- Bobby, whom I also got to know, was pretty terrific in his last years -- but Senator Ted Kennedy was the real deal.

"Unable to move with his brothers' intellectual alacrity, sometimes plodding in impromptu expression but smooth and skillful while reading from a script, the youngest Kennedy made up for his shortcomings early in his Senate career by resolutely working the substance of issues. His principled determination, plus his capacity to truly care about the real-world outcomes of legislation for ordinary people rather than its impact on his or anyone else's election, became his signature qualities as a lawmaker. But for those same reasons, he also wanted legislation passed, and his ability to work with the opposition, as he did three years ago with John McCain on immigration reform, now grants him a legacy as one of the nation's great senators.

"Oddly enough, for one born into such immense familial expectations, he was a surprisingly accessible and down-to-earth politician in the eyes of most journalists who covered him. I think of him as always authentic and never oily. As opposed to most politicians, the offstage Ted Kennedy was the more appealing one."

The reaction of conservatives is, if anything, even more telling. I mentioned David Frum above; here is Red State's Erick Erickson, saying Kennedy "represented all that is wrong with Washington" -- and yet:

"I had an encounter with Senator Kennedy once. When I was in law school I wrote a paper on campaign finance laws as they relate to the media. I had to interview 'two people of note.' I chose Tony Snow and Senator Kennedy -- Kennedy just to see if I could get to someone like that and impress my law school professor.

"I could. He was surprisingly accessible. He was very nice, generous with his time, and disagreed with me on everything. We completely and totally disagreed. He got a laugh out of it, as did I."

The Washington Times looks beyond the demonization:

"In campaign ads, fundraising appeals and stump speeches, Edward M. Kennedy was, for Republicans, the embodiment of evil, the ultimate tax-and-spend liberal, the face of Big Government run amok.

"But behind the scenes, the senator from Massachusetts, who died of cancer late Tuesday at the age of 77, repeatedly joined forces with the Senate's most conservative Republicans to push through legislation, and even broke ranks with his party to champion causes touted by presidents despised by the Democratic rank and file."

Michelle Malkin called for conservative restraint while predicting "a nauseating excess of MSM hagiographies and lionizations -- and crass calls to pass the health care takeover to memorialize his death."

Is the coverage unduly favorable? At Politics Daily, Carl Cannon says Chappaquiddick is getting short shrift:

"The idea that Edward M. Kennedy could be a viable national politician -- let alone a much-admired and lionized political figure -- has convinced millions of everyday citizens and succeeding generations of conservative activists that among the elites of academia, politics, and the media two standards of behavior exist: One for liberal Democrats and another for conservative Republicans . . . Liberals in the media pretend not to see this."

Kennedy's inexcusable behavior, of course, took place 40 years ago. But it also would have destroyed the career of any ordinary politician.

Victoria Reggie, Kennedy's widow, has been making calls about speeding up the succession, the Boston Globe reports:

"Governor Deval L. Patrick, breaking his silence on the future of Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat, yesterday embraced Kennedy's request that the governor be given the power to appoint someone to the seat until voters can choose a permanent successor in a special election."

But Time cautions: "Democrats on Capitol Hill might be better off keeping Kennedy's seat empty -- and then using the sympathy generated by his death as an excuse to ram through health legislation by majority vote."

Howard Kurtz is a contributor to CNN and host of its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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