08.30.09

The Last Reunion

From a Brezhnev aide to the Broadway song that brought the house down, Ted Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer on remarkable moments that ended an era. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of the services.

“Hello, Adam, remember me?” shouted a man with a Russian accent as we waited to get into the Friday night celebration of Ted Kennedy’s life. The Russian accent was the giveaway since I don’t think I had seen Andrei Pavlov since interviewing him for my biography of Kennedy in 1997. I said hello and he then launched into reminiscences about Kennedy’s 1974 meeting with Leonid Brezhnev. “They met for six hours, although Brezhnev never spent more than 45 minutes on such meetings,” he said, reminding me of what an important source he has been. (Twelve years ago, it was just a four-hour meeting, but who’s counting?)

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The weekend was like that. Pavlov may have come further than anyone else, but a few minutes earlier I was talking with Trina Vargo, a former foreign-policy aide whom I used to interview about Kennedy’s efforts for peace in Northern Ireland, about quasi-state dinners Kennedy used to hold in the same room at the John F. Kennedy Library where the celebration would be held. And I repeatedly saw Nick Littlefield, a former top aide on the Health Committee and a source on Kennedy’s struggles for national health insurance, fidgeting. He was getting ready to sing—he has a fine baritone, which Kennedy sometimes used to persuade Orrin Hatch to agree with him. Indeed he later brought down the house by singing directly to Vicki Kennedy, Ted’s redemptive second wife, the Andrew Lloyd Webber song, “Love Changes Everything.”

    Again and again, speakers refused to call it the end of an era. His son Ted said, “the fact is, he wasn’t done. He still had work to do.”         .     

Saturday, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, there were far more faces, though less occasion for chatting. The final event, the funeral, had the same people, plus representatives of all the worlds in which Kennedy lives. There were musicians like Placido Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma and Tony Bennett, and scores of former Kennedy aides, going back to David Burke, Jim Flug and George Abrams from the mid-'60s. There were senators past like Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum, and senators present too many to count. Dozens of Kennedys from all generations. Reporters who had covered him, like Wayne Woodlief from the Boston Herald or myself from The New York Times. The incomparable Bill Russell from the Boston Celtics of yore was there, as were the team’s current owners. President Drew Faust of Harvard was there. So was Michael Kaiser, head of the Kennedy Center in Washington. And on and on.

There have been other celebrations recently. They were more joyous; Kennedy was gravely ill but no one knew how long he had left or at what level of activity. Many of these same people were at Harvard in December when Faust conferred a long overdue honorary degree at a special convocation. And many were at the Kennedy Center in March for a delayed party for his 77th birthday, with a lot of Broadway melodies and President Obama leading the audience in “Happy Birthday.”

There may be some smaller reunions again. Even without them, quite a few of those on hand this weekend are involved with the planning for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, next door to the Kennedy Library.

But there won’t be anything like this again, nothing to get Andrei Pavlov to fly 4,500 miles from Moscow, where the Kremlin aide lives in retirement. Nothing to get Nick Littlefield, now a prominent Boston attorney, an audience of 600.

And nothing to get perhaps 50,000 people to wait to file past his casket at the library, dozens in wheelchairs to celebrate his premier legislation, the Americans With Disabilities Act. And nothing to get a few thousand Bostonians to stand in a downpour today just to watch for the hearse and buses full of Kennedys or senators or dignitaries to pass by. Or to get a lucky few who lived across the street from the church in Roxbury to lean out their windows to peer down the center aisle toward the altar.

This weekend marked an end. Again and again, speakers refused to call it the end of an era. His son Ted, Saturday’s most compelling speaker, said “the fact is, he wasn’t done. He still had work to do.” Various speakers said his values and dreams would live on, and the younger generation would carry the torch. Maybe so, but it might take a while. At Saturday’s funeral Mass, the only one to talk about national health insurance, the cause of Kennedy’s life, was not President Obama, but 12-year-old Max Allen. The senator’s grandson offered a prayer for “decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”

But it really was the end of the Ted Kennedy era, not the Kennedy era. Jack and Robert Kennedy burned brightly on the American scene, but for about a third as long as Ted. And though many of his years have been devoted to completing the business their martyrdoms left unfinished, he added his own causes like health care and Northern Ireland. He had been doing it alone since 1968, building coalitions, reading the legislation, looking for openings as he tried to make America a better country, especially for the poor, the sick, the needy, and the victims of discrimination.

That’s the Ted Kennedy era, and it ended this weekend.

Adam Clymer is a former chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.