Senator Kennedy a role model? Sure you’d have to have been living under a rock over the past few days not to hear or read about the public service accolades, the interest in the poor, the legislative accomplishments. But what about the getting kicked out of Harvard part? The carousing and cavorting? Chappaquiddick? What about all the bad stuff and the personal flaws — many if not most of which were on display?
Well yes. There was all that. And perhaps even some more. But reflecting on Senator Kennedy’s life — and life in general — I suggest we all reflect on our own short-comings. They may not be as big or as egregious or as oversized as what we saw in the youngest Kennedy son. But if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll find our own blind spots, our own severe missteps, our own poor judgement — ours just didn’t get all the attention that Senator Kennedy’s did.
Some may focus on the flaws of Ted Kennedy. But whether you are right or left, conservative or liberal, religious or secular, what should him a role model for us all was his unique combination of two things: genuine personal compassion combined with a strong work ethic.
I live in Washington DC. In this town you often find one absent the other. People who overflow with words of caring and love but are too lazy to act on that compassion. They say the right words and perhaps even have the right motivation. They just don’t do much. Then you have the workaholics who lose themselves in their jobs and their causes. They are so wrapped up in their own little world that they forget that there’s real people, real individuals, real folk out there who just need some help.
Mr. Kennedy was not a lazy man. He was by all accounts, tireless, indefatigable, unstoppable. And he found a way to put that energy to help real people with real life problems. I’ve been stunned by the sheer number of stories that people have shared with me about Senator Kennedy’s personal compassion. Everyone seems to have a Joe Biden story. A story where Ted Kennedy took an extra step or lent an extra hand when he found out a person was dealing with tragedy. Recently a friend and colleague shared with me the following story:
You know the connection I have to both 9/11 and the Senator so I took note of this story I saw about Senator Kennedy and the families from Massachusetts – it was reported for the first time shortly after his illness was disclosed.
Within a couple of days after the 9/11, Senator Kennedy had called every Massachusetts family that had lost a someone. There were 176. Even by the standards of exceptional elected officials, you and I know that’s a lot of calls.
A few weeks later one widow, Cindy McGinty, was informed by the Navy that because she could not locate her husband’s discharge papers, an honor guard would not be sent to his funeral. Michael McGinty was a insurance executive in one of the towers and a Naval Academy graduate. She called Senator Kennedy. The next day someone from the Navy called and said a Navy honor guard would be sent to the funeral of Michael McGinty, USN, Rtd.
As David Frum reports, Sen. Kennedy wrote a personal note to every family that lost somebody. He also wrote a letter to every family every year after that because as he said, the memory doesn’t go away.
A few months after 9/11, he pulled all the federal agencies together in Massachusetts to meet with the Massachusetts 9/11 families to make sure everything was being done that could be done. At that meeting, Cindy McGinty, who had two pre-teen boys, said she was overwhelmed and was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Kennedy made sure each family in Massachusetts was assigned an advocate who would do as much or as little as the families needed.
A year later McGinty said she didn’t know how Kennedy found out, but one of her sons was having trouble adjusting. Kennedy invited her and her two boys out to Hyannis Port for a sail one Saturday and they sailed from 11 to 4 (absolutely no press was to be told). He was to meet with presidential candidate, John Kerry, that afternoon and reportedly kept him waiting. Later he sent to Mrs. McGinty and her boys photographs and a picture — one he painted — of the day sailing with inscriptions saluting them for their courage.
Senator Kennedy’s life and death is a reminder of those compassionate acts we’ve left undone … those people we’ve forgotten to care for.
Senator Kennedy has passed. But we’ve still got some time left.