My first real news assignment was to attend a press conference given by Sen. Ted Kennedy. I was an intern at Metro Boston, a free daily paper that commuters read on the T (mostly to catch up on headlines, sport scores and Sudoku). I don’t think I even owned a tape recorder at the time…it was just me and my notebook, about to face a Kennedy and one of the longest-serving senators in our history. No biggie.
The good thing about covering press conferences is that they’re typically a great place for nervous “cub reporters” to hide out and still get the job done. Information is delivered, a couple seasoned vets ask questions, and you go home with a story without having to open your mouth. I’ll admit it’s not how Pulitzers are won, but that’s what happens when you still have stage fright.
However, that formula falls apart when you show up late. Only a few reporters were left standing around Kennedy, some with cameras, all with recorders, bombarding him with questions. This was up-close, personal. I had to join the scrum to get the story.
The rest is kind of a blur. I have no idea what I asked Kennedy, if anything. What I do remember was the man. I was surprised by how…well, short he was. Kennedy couldn’t have been much taller than 5’10, though iMDB puts him at 6′. It was a testament to the legend behind the “Lion of the Senate” — no matter his height, he was still very much larger than life.
He was intimidating, emanating fierce energy. His face was ruddy, like he’d been drinking or in a heated argument, or both. Eyes blazed with intelligence and confidence. And he somehow managed to be both gruff and eloquent, like a Notre Dame football coach speaking thoughtfully about stem cell research. There he stood, less than a foot away from me, and I was scared to keep eye contact.
It’s not much of an anecdote, but it still stands out when I think about what the country has lost with the passing of Ted Kennedy. This was a man you wanted on your side. He got things done. Considering his upbringing, he could have been a champion of the elite, but he spoke loudly — and persuasively — for those who had less. Consider his track record: 40+ years in the Senate; instrumental in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. In his early 70s — when people his age are retiring to Boca — he was paving the way for universal health care in Massachusetts.
Kennedy certainly had his demons (no one can forget Chappaquiddick). But to a casual observer, it seems he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for his past. How could a man whom so many Republicans love to hate always have a major ally from across the aisle on his legislation? I think, ultimately, people respected what he did. He served the greater good. And at a time when we’re reading about governors running off to Argentina or just quitting to do…who the hell knows what, you realize how sorely we’ll miss a public servant like Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Senator Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy, Feb. 22, 1932-Aug. 25, 2009