Contemplating life without 'Himself', the Senator

By 
Jim O'Sullivan, State House News Service
May. 28, 2008

Benjamin A. Smith II was mayor of Gloucester in 1955, the year that a right end wearing number 88 snagged the Harvard Crimson's only touchdown in a 21-7 whipping at the hands of the Elis in The Game.

A few years later, Smith, who had attended Harvard at the same time as one of his closest friends, the end's older brother, was appointed to the United States Senate because the older brother had been elected president. A few years after that, Smith's service in the United States Senate was no longer needed. He did not run for re-election. Ted Kennedy, number 88, was elected a U.S. senator and has served in the Capitol ever since.

The senator emerged from Massachusetts General Hospital on May 21, waving and flashing thumbs-up to a melancholy political world. Ted was sick, it was bad, and time to start thinking of what very few had dared mention. Forty-six years in the Senate. A battleship full of legislative credits. Clay, Webster, Calhoun, that type of crowd.

So, while wiseguys, some of them not yet born when he was injured in his plane crash, or when he embarrassed himself, and worse, at Chappaquiddick, or when he delivered one of modernity's great eulogies for his brother Robert, started making lists, what did Ted do? He went for a sail.

After all, the formal summer kick-off on the Cape and islands, the 37th annual Figawi sailing event, was the next weekend. Even though the senator himself would not sail, the spectacle of a diagnosed-terminal 76-year-old, with a lot of highway miles on him, at the helm was indeed a thing to behold.

Beacon Hill was rattled. The day before, the governor, speaker of the House, and president of the Senate had stood in the House Members Lounge and offered calm, almost reassuring remarks about the senator's health. They'd inquired, spoken with family members, wanted to be kept in the loop.

Within hours of the diagnosis, Governor Deval Patrick emerged from his office to deliver a brief, extemporaneous statement on the senator, describing his "love" for Kennedy. Patrick aides had warned the press that the governor wasn't going to answer questions, but a TV reporter lured him back to the microphone by asking about what Kennedy has meant to the state.

Patrick: "You don't have time - and enough tape - for all the different ways in which Ted Kennedy has been and continues to be important for Massachusetts, for the interests of the meek and the mighty, for our economic interests, our interests in social justice, our interests in health care and in education."

Generations of Massachusetts pols who launched their careers after the deaths of the three older Kennedy brothers have been shaped by the line of politics Kennedy practiced, a formative process that leaves as its residue an unparalleled reverence for the senior senator. The aloofness allegations that the locals fire at John Kerry would never be aimed at Ted. The right-wing hatred for the Kennedy record is all part of a badge of honor.

It is probably fair to say that Kennedy's interests have shaped the state's own political culture's emphases. Would health care reform have passed in 2006 if the Kennedy imprimatur had not been on the issue? Is there any doubt that Nantucket Sound would be home to a wind farm? How much of the state's adherence to an escalated minimum wage, policies embracing of illegal immigrants, and success in using federal earmarks for manufacturing and research are trophies on the EMK mantle?

The notion of a Bay State political life without him detonated instantly. On the floor of the state Senate, where both of Kennedy's grandfathers served over a century ago, members during their budget debate began discussing how the state's foothold in Washington, specifically regarding health care funding, could be weakened in the near future.

Senate President Therese Murray, who entered politics as a 12-year-old Kennedy for Senate volunteer, was close to tears in discussing his diagnosis, and issued an angry statement condemning any speculation about a Kennedy successor.

For Massachusetts, its political ranks and its amateur historian class and those who have lived in the state anytime since 1962, the question is an old joke on the Cape and on the islands, around which Kennedy has sailed for decades, whose seashores he has protected in federal statute, and most of whose residents were born after he took the oath of office, with a bitter twist.

Without Teddy, where the Figawi?

Jim O'Sullivan is the former news editor of the Dorchester Reporter. Presently, he is a reporter with the State House News Service.