After the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968, his brother Ted ended a moving eulogy by saying, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.”
In light of Edward Kennedy’s passing last week, we would be well advised to look back on his life using the same criteria he asked us to use to remember his brother. The life and legacy of Edward Kennedy reflect a man who overcame a variety of personal and professional setbacks and who ultimately found his place and calling. As the only one of four sons of Joseph Kennedy who lived a full life, the expectations of a generation often fell onto his shoulders. Elected to the U.S. Senate at the tender age of 30 to fill the seat his brother Jack vacated when he was elected president, he went from a green and little-regarded senator to one of the most respected and well-liked members of the body by his colleagues. At the time of his death, he had served almost 50 years.
He largely overcame personal demons that included the Chappaquiddick incident, divorce, and difficulties with alcohol, fidelity and his weight. He pursued a failed attempt to be elected president in 1980 and then returned to the Senate, where his stature and influence increased through the years.
Despite the fact that he was always one of the most liberal members of the Senate and was used by conservative groups for fund-raising appeals, he became among the most respected and well-liked senators among his colleagues. It was illustrative that after his passing some of the most heart felt tributes came from his conservative colleagues. He became a pragmatic lawmaker who managed to maintain his very liberal philosophy while at the same time understanding how to look for common ground with his opponents to find solutions. It is often said that politics is the art of the possible, and Sen. Kennedy became a master of understanding possibilities and compromises that worked for people with very disparate goals and philosophies.
Our memories of Sen. Kennedy should reflect his long and complicated life. He was a successful national figure who assumed the role of family patriarch at a young age and, by all accounts, was a father figure for his fatherless nieces and nephews. Conversely, his life included personal loss and foibles and professional failures.
For me, the most important lessons to be learned from the life of Edward Kennedy are that no one is perfect, that we all benefit when we commit ourselves to issues that are larger than ourselves, that we are obligated to have the courage of our convictions, and that the world is a better place when we can disagree without being disagreeable.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations firm.