Several years ago I was out on the road, performing at a festival far away from my home in Massachusetts. The sponsor asked me to do an early morning interview with a local radio personality to promote the upcoming shows. I’m always a little leery about those early morning DJs – their main job often seems to be to make themselves look funny at someone else’s expense. Usually, they have no idea what I’m about and I have to explain myself. But it’s my job, so I said yes.
“So,” the guy says after introducing me “you’re from Massachusetts.”
“Yep,” I said.
“How do you like your lowlife senator?” he asked. I heard the glee in his voice.
This was not about storytelling, or music, or my work, and I knew where he was headed. It was seven in the morning and I wasn’t in the mood. I felt blindsided. It’s not my job to talk about politics. Especially that early in the morning.
“Who do you mean?” I asked.
“You know,” he said, “Old fat Teddy.”
That was it.
“Look,” I said, “whatever you think of Ted Kennedy, he’s the only Senator in the whole United States Senate who seems to care one little bit about poor people. I’m proud he’s my Senator. Any other questions?”
It was a short interview. I doubt if I encouraged anyone to come see me. I was sorry for that, and I apologized to the sponsor.
Watching his funeral yesterday, and listening to what people said about him, I was struck, most of all, by the possibility of redemption in life, if someone is given the chance. Truth be told, over the years, I’ve had a hard time with Kennedy’s personal behavior – I loved what he was saying, but often hated what he was doing. He was, at times, impossible to defend. And if Ted Kennedy were you or me, he might well have not walked the streets.
Because of privilege, and surely because of support, Ted Kennedy escaped some of the consequences of his behavior and his demons. But because he was given that chance, somewhere along the way, he found what he was meant to do, and made a difference in many people’s lives. The things people are saying about him are not just the typical things people say about someone when they die. Even his “enemies” had to acknowledge his humanity and accomplishments. And his kindness.
Most impressive, I think, is that Kenendy found a way to communicate with people who were diametrically opposed to the things he wanted. Very few of us have the patience and fortitude to do that. I try, and often fail. But my failures are not public.
The lesson for me in all of this is that rather than look for retribution and punishment when someone has failed, and failed miserably, I wonder how we can look for what is good in the person who has failed. How do we speak to that part? What’s our job?
Kennedy changed, it seems. He righted his course. Who someone is at twenty-one, or thirty, or forty will not necessarily be who they are at fifty, or sixty, if they are given a chance. If they learn their lesson, they carry a humility and compassion with them that only failure can teach.
We could, rightfully, have thrown Kennedy out and never seen him again. But he stuck around. It’s good he did.
Of course, a good number of decent people may have wished he’d disappeared. That’s politics, though, I think.
Now, the challenge for me is what I would be saying if Kennedy’s politics weren’t pretty close to the way I see the world. That’s the lesson I have to learn from seeing who Kennedy became.
Like I said, I’m proud he was my Senator.