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A Family's Hold on Our Landscape

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

They buried Ted Kennedy on Saturday in an area of lush grass on the gentle slope beneath the mansion at Arlington National Cemetery. Brothers Bobby and Jack lie nearby. Here in this resting place for thousands of soldiers, astronauts, explorers and statesmen, the Kennedys have come together through triumph and tragedy in what amounts to a family plot, a piece of priceless real estate overlooking the nation's capital.

The Kennedys occupy other turf as well -- sweeping terrain in the national psyche.

The country has seen in the past three days the equivalent of a royal funeral. Saturday's funeral Mass in Boston was attended by four U.S. presidents. The description of the Kennedys as political royalty might as well be a federal regulation.

Younger people might not understand why such a fuss has been made over a man who ran for president 30 years ago. It is hard to explain the Kennedy mystique to anyone who never experienced the tumult of the 1960s.

In the visitors center at Arlington is a blown-up photo from Nov. 25, 1963 -- a bullet point in the history of American grief -- with Jacqueline Kennedy, face twisted in pain, having just received the folded flag that had covered her husband's casket. Next to her is Bobby, stooped in anguish. Teddy appears to be at the margin of the shot, back to the camera. Only a few years later, before he was ready, the youngest son became the only son left.

Edward Kennedy was, as President Obama said with great understatement at the funeral Mass, "heir to a weighty legacy." For the citizens of the country, Kennedy's death concludes a narrative more than half a century in the telling. It's a familiar story by now: Joseph Kennedy Sr. had four sons and dreamed that one would someday be the first Catholic in the White House. That ambition bent American history for decades to come. The saga was often dazzling, and persistently tragic.

Now we know how the story ends. Quietly. Peacefully. The funeral Mass was somber and reverent, but it was preceded Friday night by a sometimes raucous, humorous celebration of the man's life. The last son died at home, among family, after sailing the Nantucket Sound almost to his final moments.

A vivid era in American history is rapidly fading. The Culture Wars that began in the '60s came to define the ideological battles of the next three decades, with Kennedy an all-purpose symbol of the values of the left and Ronald Reagan playing a similar role for the right. The issues defined in that era no longer throw off as many sparks. Obama, who came to power with a boost from the senator, has vowed to leave the divisions of the 1960s behind.

The baby boomers who pledged to bring about the Revolution now worry that health-care reform could undermine their Medicare. The space program is out of money. No one worries that Afghanistan will turn into another Vietnam; they worry it'll be another Iraq. The Beatles have become an interactive computer game. In Upstate New York, there was just a Woodstock anniversary -- the 40th -- but hardly anyone bothered to show up. Another page turned.

Kennedy's death was surely, as every pundit and headline writer has noted in recent days, the end of an era. But the events of the past few days have reminded the country that the icon was also a man, never ordinary to be sure, but with joy and suffering like any other mortal. For the Kennedy family, the farewell was intensely personal and prayerful.

The emotional pivot of Saturday's Mass came when Teddy Jr. delivered his eulogy. He spoke of trying, as a 12-year-old who'd just lost a leg to cancer, to climb a snow-covered hill so he could go sledding with his father. It was slick. He fell down. Cried. "I can't do this. I'll never be able to climb up that hill." His father picked him up in his arms and said: "I know you can do it. There is nothing that you can't do. We're going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day."

As much as the Kennedy saga has been lived in public, we learned things Saturday. Had we known that Ted dressed as Santa at Christmas? That he was a Civil War battlefield buff? That he'd been recruited out of college by the Green Bay Packers, as Teddy Jr. informed us?

His flaws and failings are part of the public record.

"He was not perfect. Far from it. But my father believed in redemption," his namesake said.

For the U.S. Senate, Kennedy's death means a dramatic drop in star power for a chamber that no longer is prowled by senators who cast a broad national profile and are brand names for their ideologies. The Senate today is largely populated by men and women who can walk the length of Pennsylvania Avenue without anyone doing a double take.

Kennedy relished his outsized role. He jumped with both feet into any battle, never reluctant to punctuate a bellowed point with a loud thump of the lectern. Obama told a classic anecdote Saturday about the senator: "A few years ago, his father-in-law told him that he and Daniel Webster just might be the two greatest senators of all time. Without missing a beat, Teddy replied, 'What did Webster do?' "

For conservatives, Kennedy's death removes from the field a favorite boogeyman. During Republican primaries, all a candidate had to do to impugn an opponent's credentials was to insinuate some commonality with Ted Kennedy. Some of that enmity might eventually die out of its own accord, as there can be little satisfaction in raging against the departed. Even before now, the ritualized attacks on Kennedy had an obsolescent element -- bitter stuff boiled down after too long on the hot plate.

The weight of the past grows lighter by the day. Go back to that Kennedy family plot, as it were, at Arlington: The quotes from President Kennedy, chiseled on a sweeping wall beneath the eternal flame, are those of a cold warrior, warning of the threats to freedom from a never-quite-defined enemy.

The quotes from Robert F. Kennedy are chiseled on a more modest wall along a fountain. One is from the night that the senator went into the inner city in Indianapolis and told a largely black audience that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In a brave and moving speech, he said that his brother, like King, had been killed by a white man. Kennedy had quoted Aeschylus: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

In the hot sun of Arlington on Saturday afternoon, Kay Wilson, 57, a teacher from Dumfries, recalled how her father taught her as a child all about the Kennedys. "We were almost obsessed," she said. She hopes the Kennedy mystique has not evaporated over the years. "I hope that feeling is still alive. That the mystique is still here. Because it was such an important part of my upbringing."

Over at the Capitol, among thousands waiting for the Kennedy motorcade to pay a final visit to where the senator worked for 47 years, Barbara Keeling, 66, said what so many others have the past few days: "It seems like the end of something."

But what?

"The politicians we grew up with."

Teddy's sister Eunice died just two weeks earlier. There is now only one child surviving of Joe and Rose Kennedy's nine children -- Jean, looking fit and strong as she said goodbye Saturday to her brother.

But then there are all those other Kennedys who filed into the church Saturday. Just as the Kennedys famously had a "compound" at Hyannis Port, they also have the ultimate clan, and for some time to come they will remain the first family of American politics. The youngest of them took turns, with great poise, at the lectern. It will shock no one if the names of some of those young Kennedys one day pop up on a ballot.

They will tell stories about the Ted Kennedy they knew. The historians will chew on his record. And at Arlington, on that green hill with the exquisite view of the capital, the man's resting place will speak loudly for years to come. Visitors will know that these Kennedys really mattered to us.

But as they pass into history, it will be harder and harder to remember just how much they charmed us, how much they inspired us and how much they broke our hearts.

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