A great Irish chieftain has passed


08/26/2009 09:30 PM

Teddy, they hardly knew you.

To call you the greatest of all the Kennedys might strike some as lofty rhetoric. But it isn't. You gave your life to your country, as surely as those patriots of old gave theirs for the United States and your beloved Ireland.

A great Irish chieftain has passed.

Sure, Jack became president and Bobby became a folk hero. But they never accomplished what you did throughout your life.

Protector of the poor, the downtrodden , the voiceless, the needy. Those in pain, those in suffering. The litany goes on. You were there for them — oftentimes you stood alone. That great booming voice, relentless, despite the odds.

Yes you were flawed. Are we all not?

But underneath lay a relentless dignity, courage and decency that I never found in another politician living or dead. You will still stand taller in your grave than the critics who hounded you.

That was you, Teddy. I was so proud to call you friend.

One of my most cherished memories ever will be the call from you as I sat in a Dublin hotel in August 1994. The IRA ceasefire had just been announced. There were no cell phones then — an excited hotel employee came running into the restaurant. "Ted Kennedy is on the phone."

Everybody there applauded. They knew what you had done — you brought peace to Ireland.

Without your critical backing for the visa for Gerry Adams from President Clinton in 1994 there would have been no IRA ceasefire. Without you President Clinton would never have have had the political muscle to give Gerry Adams the visa that led to that ceasefire and to peace in Ireland.

You made Clinton appoint your sister Jean Ambassador to Ireland where she played a key role in the peace play. You were the voice for Ireland on Capitol Hill for a decade, like you were the voice for so many other causes.

When you decided Gerry Adams wanted to make peace you brought America with you. It was a huge risk but you took it willingly.

I learned then with Kennedy in your corner everything was possible — even ending a 30-year-old conflict that everyone said was unsolvable.

Right on the cusp of the Adams visa British dirty tricks tried to set up a bogus IRA outfit in San Diego of all places. They called in a fake threat and the president wavered.

You called me around midnight and asked me to get Adams on the phone — to tell him straight that you,Ted Kennedy, would stand by him and vouch for him with the president that very night and the visa would go ahead. Clinton stopped wavering and granted it.

It was a huge leap of faith but not to you it wasn't. You rarely calculated the odds but if it was right you did it — like peace bringing peace to Ireland.

What a politician you were. One of my fondest memories is the day you and the beautiful Vickie took me campaigning with you during a tough re-election battle against Mitt Romey in Massachusetts in 1994. It was a close race but that day I saw Ted Kennedy the master politician in action.

Everywhere you went you were like the character from "Cheers," where everybody knew your name. No matter whether they were high up or low down, you grabbed them in that great bear hug, asked about their family, even knew the names of their kids.

All day, in every building, along every street across every district, I saw the same extraordinary outreach. I had never seen anything like it.

You were to the political world born but you created your own legacy as the greatest American to ever serve in the Senate.

And boy, could you make a speech! I had the misfortune to precede you on many occasions, when I was organizing the immigration reform rallies over the past few years.

We brought 3,000 people to Washington as part of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform Movement. You came to all our rallies and I introduced you — and got out of the way as quick as I could. It was like bending before a powerful gale, once you took the podium.

Whether it was the "Boys of Wexford" song we always played for your entrance, or your deep emotional ties to Ireland, your staffers told me they were among the best speeches you ever made. I think it was because in your heart you identified so profoundly with the underdog, with the undocumented of whatever nationality trying to begin life in America like your great grandparents from Wexford did right after the Irish famine.

You never forgot your roots, your deep identity with the downtrodden and your brothers' dream that you could help raise people up.

Eighteen months ago I testified before your Senate committee on immigration. You turned it into a wonderful dissertation on the role of the Irish in America.

As the other senators sat and watched in some bemusement we ranged over every Irish topic from immigration reform to Northern Ireland to your beloved County Wexford and the news from Ireland.

You put on quite a show and the other panelists beside me sat dumbfounded. They had come for a discussion on immigration instead they got one man's love of his heritage and his history.