For this left-leaning Catholic from New England with a passion for policy, there are few people held in higher regard than Jed Bartlet, who, unfortunately, is imaginary. Ted Kennedy has always been one of those few, as I would guess he has been for other northeastern Catholic Dems. Kennedy spoke our language. Much like Obama has done over the last few years, he announced to the world what we believed in better language than we could ever come up with on our own. He fought for things that we didn’t even know we wanted to fight for until he brought them to light.
We live in an era without second chances. One scandal, one misstep, one howl (remember Howard Dean?) and you are out like yesterday’s trash. One of the more compelling themes to come out of reflections on Kennedy’s tenure in the Senate is the consequence of his longevity. Rather than simply celebrating longevity for longevity’s sake, I cherish that longevity for giving us a model of great endurance and growth.
Our beloved “Liberal Lion” was not born a lion. He stumbled through youth like the rest of us, making tragically bad choices and enduring scandals that would put our current generation of blathering adulterous squirts like Mark Sanford to shame. Because of his name and because of his era he could keep going in public life and continue to work not only to make America what he thought it should be but to become what he should be as well.
When I look to Kennedy as a role model (in some things, not all, surely) it is because I see an example of someone who grew up. Lions are made, not born, and as I scamper around like a dumb cub swatting at toys and losing my balance, I feel hope that with perseverance and self-correction I can become who I am supposed to be. No matter how painful life’s discipline may be we have a choice to be broken or a choice to continue becoming. The elder Kennedy had become someone who was truly admirable, someone who had refined his message and knew for what he was fighting.
Nowadays public figures have to be perfect all the time. There’s no place for a sordid history, and those who hope to live in the public eye need to start preparing for it in childhood. There can be no smear or blemish, because all of the rest of we damaged people won’t allow that in our heroes. I, for one, relish the opportunity to celebrate a damaged, sinful hero. We don’t have to ignore the sinfulness to admire the goodness of someone who had the good fortune and the grace to mature.