We’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones who got a little emotional watching Ted Kennedy speak at the Democratic National Convention last night. His whiter, whispier hair. The occasional cracks in his voice. Maria Shriver simultaneously clapping and wiping away tears. The profound sadness in Caroline Kennedy’s smile when it cut to her in the audience. The way he said Novembah. His promise to be there in January, when we know how unlikely that may be. “The dream will never die,” has become “The dream lives on.”
It’s hard to remember exactly why we love Ted Kennedy. We’d like to think it’s his years of public service and the accomplishments Caroline Kennedy enumerated in her introduction. But we all know he also reminds us of his brothers. His younger, handsomer days. He’s the one who lived, the one who never made it to the top. He holds the dreams that died.
And I can’t help but be reminded of the piece I read in grad school. GQ must have assigned this to a young, unknown Michael Kelly in 1990 because they thought he wouldn’t be able to do it, or because they thought he would have nothing to lose. It’s a magnificent piece of writing and of journalism.
Edward Moore Kennedy works harder than most people think, and this morning he is working very hard at a simple but crucial task. He is trying to face the day. It is 9:30 A.M, September 26, and Kennedy is in Room 138 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building to introduce a bill to lure new and better teachers. This kind of thing is ice cream and cake for any practiced politician, a simple piece of business that will provoke few tough questions and at least a few approving editorials. But for Kennedy it seems a great challenge, and no fun at all. He hastens tonelessly through his prepared statement like a court stenographer reading back testimony to the judge. He passes off most of the perfunctory and easy questions to the other politicians and education-Establishment figures joining him, and he stares into space as the other men do the job. When he goes to the podium to introduce his fellow speakers, he walks with a nervous, cautious shuffle, like Steve McQueen after he’s been let out of solitary in Papillon. When he holds out the piece of white paper to read the introductions of men he’s known for decades, it flutters and shakes in the still air.
Up close, the face is a shock. The skin has gone from red roses to gin blossoms. The tracery of burst capillaries shines faintly through the scaly scarlet patches that cover the bloated, mottled cheeks. The nose that was once straight and narrow is now swollen and bulbous, with open pores and a bump of what looks like scar tissue near the tip. Deep corrugations crease the forehead and angle from the nostrils and the downturned corners of the mouth. The Chiclet teeth are the color of old piano keys. The eyes have yellowed too, and they are so bloodshot, it looks as if he’s been weeping.
Edward Kennedy was once the handsomest of the handsome Kennedy boys, with a proudly jutting chin, a Nelson Eddy jaw and Cupid’s-bow lips under a thatch of chestnut hair. When he is dieting and on the wagon, there is a glimpse of that still, which makes it all the harder to see him as he more often is. There is a great desire to remember him as we remember his brothers. The Dorian Grays of Hyannis Port, John and Robert, have perpetual youth and beauty and style, and their faces are mirrors of all that is better and classier and richer than us. Ted is the reality, the 57-year-old living picture of a man who has feasted on too much for too long with too little restraint, the visible proof that nothing exceeds like excess.
And that’s just the lede. Really, keep reading.*
* The piece itself, of course, carries it’s own bit of sadness. Michael Kelly died covering the war in Iraq in 2003.