With the death of Senator Ted Kennedy last week, I have been thinking a lot about second chances. Kennedy is being lauded as a lion of the Senate and champion of the “little guy” (that would be me and all of my kind, I’m suspecting), and the left-, right-, and center-leaning talking heads have been all atwitter about the Senator, discussing the second chances he received at various points in history—his personal history and our collective one—and if he deserved the post-mortem kudos that he is receiving now.
I’m thinking yes.
It was not until I was older that I understood the magnitude of this man’s Senate career and ultimate legacy. Thousands of legislative bills presented, several hundred turned into laws. He had worked tirelessly on the health care issue since the Nixon administration, which for me was a time I was working tirelessly on one thing: getting Barry Manilow’s autograph. That will give you an idea of how long ago that was. He had been a senator for forty-seven years with only two senators—Methuselah and Robert Byrd—having held their seats for a longer period of time. Yet, this man’s life and legacy will be marred by a string of tragic events, in particular, but not limited to the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne, his own struggles with alcohol, and his involvement with a nephew brought up on rape charges. Many people are stuck on these issues and events and can’t see past them to celebrate a life well lived, while there are others who have completely forgotten these aspects of the man’s life only to celebrate his remarkable achievements.
And then there are those of us in the middle. I can’t help thinking about what it must be like for Ms. Kopechne’s family to see all of the accolades bestowed upon him in death. But I also can’t stop thinking about a man who lived his life in public and endured shame and recriminations but who also saw two children through cancer, the death of all of his siblings save one—with two dying violently—and other tragedies that would have felled the strongest of us. I can’t help thinking of the man who submitted a letter to Pope Benedict just recently, asking forgiveness for the things he had done in his life. I also can’t stop thinking about the people interviewed who said that he had personally helped them get necessary medical care for their loved ones, or information about someone missing overseas. I can’t stop thinking that I wouldn’t have had three months home with child #1 after she was born if it hadn’t been for the Family and Medical Leave Act that he, along with President Clinton, helped enact.
We are all flawed. And if you think that you are the first to admit that, you’ll have to get in line behind me. But I can’t help thinking that after reading a number of articles and watching news broadcasts and the funeral on television that this was a man who spent his life atoning. There are many of my kind (the Irish-Catholic variety) who find his brand of pure unadulterated liberalism a discredit to our heritage and religion, while others of us find it exactly what we think both embody. Social justice? Check. Helping those less fortunate? Check. Trying to make up for a life of imperfection? Check. Doing it all with a big smile on your face while eating a sandwich and telling a long-winded story? Double check.
It’s a complicated legacy, for sure. But then again, all of ours will be, I suspect. Maybe it is not what we’ve done, but what we do with the chance to do it again?