Back in 1994, I had the pleasure of accompanying Senator Edward Kennedy on a campaign whistle-stop tour during his Senate re-election race in Massachusetts. I was the only journalist on the trip, and it was just the three of us plus an aide for much of the time until his wife, Vicki, joined us.
It was a fraught time for Kennedy. A relative unknown called Mitt Romney was threatening to pull off the impossible and defeat the incumbent senator in the state that had given birth to the Kennedy legend.
It was a time when Newt Gingrich was king and Kennedy was portrayed widely in the right-wing media as a liberal whose time had come and gone, “big, fat and out of date” as one pundit put it.
The Kennedy I saw was very different. He had all the old-time fervor of his beloved grandfather, Honey Fitz, former mayor of Boston and the ability to connect with voters that is a unique Kennedy trait.
He knew everyone, and I mean everyone. From the doorman in the buildings we visited to the lady making the tea in the cafeteria, he knew first names, family tree, where the son in the army was serving.
It was an incredibly impressive feat, given the literally millions of people he must have crossed paths with to that point in his senatorial career.
When it came to retail politics, Kennedy was king. I did not have the slightest worry after leaving him that he would win, and he did handsomely.
I had another sense of the man on a different occasion when he took me on a tour of the Kennedy Library near Dorchester. I got a brief sense then what it must have been like to walk in the footsteps of two older brothers who had become American icons overnight after their assassinations. I wondered that night how he managed to shoulder the impossible burden of carrying on their legacy.
Ted was all too much flesh and blood, a human being with all the frailties, yet somehow he has lived up to -- and in my opinion surpassed -- his dead brothers in many ways.
I was reminded of that day and night when reading the latest book on Kennedy, titled The Last Lion, which is a detailed and highly enjoyable account by a slew of Boston Globe reporters who have covered Kennedy’s incredibly long career.
It is a warts-and-all look that doesn’t gloss over Chappaquiddick or the womanizing, but the rounded portrait that appears is of an extraordinary politician and leader who late in life achieved redemption for past ills and who will exit the stage as the greatest senator in the history of the U.S.
The list of his accomplishments is staggering, from every possible form of advance in health care for everyone, especially children, to major bills on disability, workers’ rights, cancer research and transparency in politics.
Now in the twilight of his Senate career he is championing one last cause, universal health care. Given his incredible ability to battle back against all the odds, I wouldn’t bet against him.
The book reveals the complexity of the man, from the tough upbringing in the shadow of so many legends, the early missteps, including the dreadful Chappaquiddick incident, the period when he seemed lost in the darkness after the assassination of his brothers, to the gradual renewal and incredible comeback in the autumn of his life.
It was hardly surprising that he passed the torch to Barack Obama last year in an act of exquisite timing that boosted the young contender at a critical time, and left him forever in Kennedy’s debt.
That day in 1994 I saw one of the main reasons for his unlikely renaissance. His wife Vicki is simply the right woman, from an old political family herself. She re-energized and refocused him in a way that seemed impossible at first. Little wonder there is speculation that she may one day replace him in the Senate.
As we all know Kennedy is now seriously ill with a brain tumor, a circumstance that pits him against yet another formidable foe in a lifetime of battling against such opponents.
The Ted Kennedy I see and know will throw every punch in the book and then some to defeat this major enemy as well.
Already he has defied the odds by appearing at the Democratic convention and by attending key sessions of the Senate when important legislation needed his guiding hand. Long may he continue to do so.