EMK: “And the last shall be first...”

Par Beryl Wajsman le 2 septembre 2009

When John Kennedy was elected President he gave his youngest brother a silver cigarette case with the scriptural verse from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark “…and the last shall be first…” engraved within. Whether they were intended as words of aspiration or inspiration, Edward Moore Kennedy – overcoming so many personal demons – rose to their hope and to their promise. His legislative legacy, more than anyone in the post-war era, became the first line of defence for hundreds of millions of the vulnerable whose concerns are too often last in the minds of lawmakers in their ivory towers.  In every day and in every way, the work of Teddy Kennedy helped everyone battle their own personal dragons. But his record of over 500 laws addressing the needs of the poor, the sick, the hungry and the marginalized, is not the most compelling reason for commemorating the passing of the last of the first generation of this remarkable family. His heart is. Teddy was all heart.

ted-kennedy.jpgIt has been said that John Kennedy was moved by his intellect. If you wanted to convince him of something, put it in writing and make it eloquent. Robert Kennedy was moved by his spirit. After his brother’s assassination he lived in a deeper and darker place. A place described in the words of RFK’s favorite poet, Aeschylus, that he quoted so often. “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.” Teddy was moved by his heart. 

It was a heart that learned through pain. Part of that pain came from the most tragic events of his life, the violent deaths of his brothers. But, as he said, those events were governed by external factors. The pain that made Teddy’s heart so empathetic to everyone, was the pain that came from his own inner demons. Teddy understood everyman because his own demons were so personal to everyman. And it was in his overcoming of them, that his heart gave him the courage to be the tribune for everyone. 

Teddy’s heart was very much an Irish heart.  The following exchange in the White House on the day of JFK’s assassination best explains it. The writer Mary McGrory said on that day that “…we shall never smile again.” Then presidential assistant Daniel Patrick Moynihan answered “No Mary, we will smile again, but we’ll never be young again. You can’t be Irish without knowing that the world will break your heart.”  Well, Teddy may have lost his youth over and over, but he miraculously grew stronger each time. And, in very concrete terms, he realized the words he spoke in tribute to his brother Robert. “He saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it…” 

The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Teddy’s beloved south Boston celebrated a High Mass of the Resurrection for him. That was fitting. For Edward Kennedy’s life was a life of redemption, renewal and rebirth. The hope and courage that John and Robert inspired was incomparable. Had they lived, perhaps the body of their work would have matched Teddy’s. But it was Teddy, constantly renewing, who picked up the fallen standard and, in so many ways, kept that hope alive and realized so many of their dreams.

So many today find it fashionable to question the value of the Kennedy family legacy. Others, members of the salon liberal set Teddy Kennedy so disdained, relish condemning him because of his pragmatism. But that was the point of all the brothers. They hated false piety. And Teddy didn’t endorse litmus tests of purity in politics. His bottom line was who could help him meet the needs of the people. That endeavour, and that endeavour alone, was the redemptive crusade of public life for him. 

Ted Kennedy brought not only courage but clarity to public life. He dared to care. He sailed into the storms. He challenged us to vigorous service and sacrifice in our daily lives. He demanded that all remember the words his brother John liked to quote from Corinthians that, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be demanded.” Most of all, he dared us to  never give in, never give in. 

Perhaps that is the greatest quality of leadership. To make people bolder, braver, better than they ever thought possible. And he did it by giving people the audacity to hope. While some today talk of change but are in fact merely the products of change, Edward Kennedy was a true agent of change. 

Jackie Kennedy once wrote him a note that said in part, "There have been 17 children besides your own - Bobby's, Pat's, Jack's and mine, for whom you have always been there. On you, the carefree youngest brother, fell a burden a hero would beg to be spared. Sick parents, lost children, desolate wives. You are a hero. Everyone is going to make it, because you are always there. ” That was the private Teddy. The same could be said of the public one. So many are making it because he was there. 

Our greatest tribute to him, and his most important lesson to us, can be found in his bold words from the 1980 Democratic Convention . “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Ahh Teddy, they hardly knew ye!


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