May 20, 2008
The Bridge from Camelot
By Mary Lyon
Jackie Kennedy planted that seed, sadly, after the fact, when talking with writer Theodore H. White - in a quest to characterize her late husband's White House years - casting them in some larger, grander, more transcendent image that would influence our thinking of the all-too-brief Kennedy Administration. Soon enough, the ink dried and the concrete hardened on that tribute and we'd all come to think of that era as Camelot. It was a magnificent state of affairs that existed in this country for that "one brief shining moment." Thankfully we still have a link to it.
Unfortunately, we're now reminded that this link is a fragile one. The news of Senator Ted Kennedy's illness is troubling and unsettling. He's everybody's "Uncle Ted" by now, whether you agree with him or not. And you don't have to be a member of the extended Kennedy clan to think that of him.
We're lucky, as Democrats, that we've had him as a leading light of our party for so long. We're lucky as Americans. He's our link to a past when everything seemed renewed, refreshed, and all things seemed possible. Granted, those memories are now tinted by time's passage, and some of us who are old enough to recall that era personally may also be old enough to be frayed a little around the edges. Yes, we're remembering just the good things. Yes, we choose to accentuate the positive. I'd note with gratitude that some of the stuff conservatives like to honk about, regarding the bumps on the road Kennedy has traveled, has courteously been downplayed.
Frankly, I hope they still have Ted Kennedy to kick around for a long time. It troubled me to hear of the seizure, the brain tumor, the continued hospitalization. We just got over something similar with Tim Johnson of South Dakota. We need our "Last Liberal Lion." We need what he says, what he does, what he stands for, what he represents. We're not through with you yet, either, Mr. Senator. Not by a long shot.
Ted Kennedy has kept the torch burning for decades now, and sometimes it has seemed as though he was the only one standing by it and refusing to abandon it. That's why we need him. Because the liberal ideals that he works so hard to strengthen and enlarge are more urgently needed now than ever before. Amidst all the media attention on his career, his health, and his many friends and well-wishers, we're seeing a flashback of what a Ted Kennedy means to America. We view him in file footage from mere days ago, in a Senate hearing room, advocating for improvement and expansion of health care coverage to those who have none. We've seen him constantly pushing on behalf of those whose lives have been lived far outside the luxury and privilege into which he was born. We've watched him give his legendary familial blessing to Barack Obama, in effect, designating the Illinois presidential hopeful as a direct heir.
These are good and valuable reminders, especially coming at this moment in presidential election year politics. Remember this guy? Remember what and who we were and what we hoped to become, back then during his family's heyday? It was a time when we as Americans were encouraged to step up, when the intellect was king and dumbing-down was unthinkable. We were instilled with a mission of collective achievement, shared work and shared sacrifice - in which everyone played a part, made a contribution, and enjoyed an investment. And we ALL stood to benefit - not just a select few with obscenely-blessed stock portfolios, oil or military contracting connections or CEO benefit packages. Ted Kennedy reminds me of that - the greatness of working for the good of all, not just of cronies. It was a time of "WE" more than a time of "ME." It was about what WE could do for OUR country, not what it might do for us.
We've drifted woefully far from that time and that philosophy. Perhaps the focus on Ted Kennedy at the moment might remind us of that era, and how it symbolized what our better selves were capable of. We looked outward without menacing anyone. We didn't have hate and divisiveness showering down upon us from every radio station and an entire cable network around the clock, week after week. We had political partisans who thought nothing of running out together for drinks or dinner after a day's worth of contentious argument, rather than huddling in separate camps plotting to swiftboat each other to scorched-earth destruction. We had one big looming enemy - with whom we risked discussions even in the face of the gravest mutual nuclear weapon-infused threats.
But with the coverage of Kennedy's illness, the most remarkable thing is happening. I'm seeing the people of the pundit world, and among the opposition, not wallowing in mud, or mud-slinging for a change. Everyone seems to be behaving in a more civil fashion. The name "Kennedy" - the "brand," if you will (since that's the language of the present), means something better, more elevated, bigger than all of us. Better FOR all of us. And it's a MOST welcome reminder now. It's about OUR better selves, our inner Camelot.
Perhaps with Kennedy's health crisis as the backdrop, we can adjust our perspective and refine our focus. We have something greater to remember, and to try to resurrect. Ted Kennedy helped unite our country once before, after we'd lost his brother Bobby, some five years after their brother John was taken from us. He was The Last Kennedy Brother, and he was still here. And at least we had him. We still do have him, hopefully for some time to come. He embodies what it means to be a Democrat, and a proud and unapologetic liberal - at a time when we need reminding about the virtue and value of the liberal viewpoint. He's uniting people again through the news cycles - some of them the most adversarial imaginable. Even they wish him well. That speaks well for them - and for all of us.