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teddyWatching Teddy Kennedy’s wake and funeral over the past few days has been a sad but wonderful lesson in the value of public service. By public service I mean the motive variously referred to as empathy, generosity, fairness, and other such terms demonized as liberalism by the new and to some extent old right wing. The Senator’s life consumed not only those labels but the full arc of a career among the people. And in doing so, he now offers a template for success in a polarized era, at a time when hard decisions are finally coming down to a vote.

Chief among his insights was the relentless pursuit of compromise as an art of war. His Republican friends spoke emotionally and graciously, but with strong doses of resistance to the famed Kennedy charm. They recognized him as a formidable opponent who could only be tamed, or at least harnessed, by finding common ground on which they could stand with him. If it was a win for them, they reasoned, I’ll gladly go along for the Kennedy ride. Not to say they didn’t enjoy the camaraderie, the chance to escape the dark hole of the sanctimonious extremists, the true spirit of enterprise that lurks in any politician’s heart. Kennedy gave them the running room to merge into the consensus of the times.

We all underestimated Teddy. From the Left, we were endlessly surprised when he championed the causes his brother Jack delineated but never had the political strength to produce. When Bobby was killed, nothing tore at our weary defeated souls like Teddy’s eulogy, which used the same tones and fierce despair Bobby used in Dr. King’s death. When he anointed Obama as the next brother, he casually let it be known first as Caroline’s idea. The master’s touch, from someone we always felt was a weaker version of the sons, fourth in line to the throne.

Now he’s gone, and we tremble at the thought there are no adults left to see us through. No matter how beaten up Obama gets, he retains double the popularity of the opposition. The cover of the latest Rolling Stone, with its year-long investigation of why the Beatles broke up (Yoko, for god’s sake), asks the musical question along the top: Is Healthcare Reform Doomed? What would Teddy say to that, we wonder. A quick journey to FriendFeed for the answer.

FriendFeed is the last remnant of the ’09 campaign. The realtime debate between left and right has calcified most other places into Death Panels versus whatever the Left is selling, oh I know, the Public option. For me, Death Panels is actually a legitimate argument, not for its factual basis (none) but for the same kind of appreciation Republicans saw Kennedy — a good frame of a fundamental fear. Just because it comes down on the wrong side of the argument detracts nothing from either its power or its usefulness in the debate.

What Kennedy understood was the power of the model, regardless of the details or even the wins and losses of the struggle. To get a foe to argue not about the issue but about the implementation was an instant and comprehensive victory, and a quick look at Kennedy’s issues shows he won them going away. FriendFeed won the realtime argument the second it launched real-time chat. And when ugly commentary surfaced about Teddy, it bubbled to the top and prompted some direct and unambiguous responses. One retort, and then silence when the tone remained strident and harsh.

What people miss with realtime is the deep change it produces in the arc of the conversation. Some decry realtime as too fast, as prone to snap decisions and 140-character cartoon oversimplifications of complex thoughts. These distinctions — RSS is long and detailed, Twitter is bursty and noisy — are political planks, not facts. They serve the implementations and the economics of the discussion, not the underlying art of war. Realtime already won the war; now we wait to have it explained to us, and carved out of compromise and perseverance.

When people attack FriendFeed for going away, I’ll see Teddy’s smile. When they attack Facebook for being closed, it’ll be tougher but still, Teddy’s smile. When Rolling Stone questions heathcare’s health, I’ll see it as evidence of Obama’s caucus troops going back to the well, energizing their troops with something akin but not yet fully engaged with Death Panels and town halls. The best thing we have going for us is no matter how much we think heath care reform sucks, it sucks less than the alternative.

Teddy’s death gave us something we’ve waited a long time for, a coda to the deaths of brothers, Beatles, and God herself. As the dusk shrouded Arlington and wrapped us all in our reveries, we could each conjure our own version of the future. At one point Chris Matthews complained about how President Obama wasn’t at the burial, and Olbermann countered by saying the eulogy was enough. Surprisingly, Matthews withdrew his comment, something he never does. I smiled Teddy’s smile.

  • francine hardaway

    I am pretty sure Obama wasn’t invited to the burial or he would have been there.

    But I digress. I am as sad as you are. And interestingly, in the past few days I have not been able to face real time because of the disgusting things said about Kennedy by people who don’t have good enough education to make a real evaluation. Who needs real time idiots?

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  • rockyc

    Great piece. It was amazing to watch the progression of “public opinion” about Teddy’s death. At first, all concerned tried to treat it like “just another story.” And then when they realized that there was a vast and emotional “public” mourning, the press jumped to attention.

    And Biden, as a personal friend, was at home at the funeral. Otherwise, it was a private affair. I was sooo pleased that the pool feed had not prepared for darkness. It allowed the family to have what they needed: a private affair.

  • Tom Degan

    Watching George W. Bush at the funeral of Teddy Kennedy on Saturday was, to say the very least, amusing. It’s always great fun to witness the members of the vast right wing conspiracy confronted head-on with the theological flaws that are inherent in their philosophy. Watching that event with my pal, Kevin Swanwick, we both were mesmerized and just slightly overjoyed to be reminded yet again that the basic tenets of Liberalism are in perfect harmony with our Christianity – our Catholicism: feed the hungry, shelter the poor and clothe the naked. Oh, how I wish the camera would have cut to Bush’s face the moment he was confronted with the most famous line (and justly so) from the Gospel according to Matthew:

    “I tell you this: whatever you did to the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.”

    Jesus of Nazareth

    One can only imagine how uncomfortable that passage from the scriptures must have made him feel. Or how about the Sermon on the Mount?

    “Blessed are the peace makers
    For they shall be called Sons of God.”

    I imagine being confronted with the words of Jesus Christ might make old George just a tad uneasy. The prayers that were offered up by the youngest members of the Kennedy clan, in Teddy’s own words, were the most touching part of the entire day:

    “That human beings be measured not by what they cannot do. That quality health care becomes a fundamental right and not a privilege. That old policies of race and gender die away. That newcomers be accepted, no matter their color or place of birth. That the nation stand united against violence, hate and war. That the work begins anew, and the dream lives on. We pray to the Lord.”

    Lord hear our prayer.

    After the mass had ended, and Kevin and I headed into town to get a cup of coffee, I was almost stunned by the good cheer I felt. Ted Kennedy’s funeral was truly a joyous event. Truth be told, it was damned-near therapeutic! The politics of joy as opposed to the politics of fear. There ain’t nothin’ like it in the world, Baby!

    The stark contrasts between the ideals of the Progressive movement and the right wing’s backwards and greedy ideology were out in public Saturday for all to compare and contrast at Our Lady of Perpetual Comfort Church in Boston. The differences were so obvious, you could not have missed them had you tried.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

    • K.E.

      It must be the pure definition of awesome to be so right.

      And Bush’s dui didn’t kill anyone. A dui I believe Bush actually apologized for. More than I can say for poor Mary Jo.

  • dreamneverdies

    Great post, Steve. I, too, spent much of the weekend transfixed by what was occurring. The emotional outpouring, from the privileged and those not-so-much, spoke volumes about Teddy’s impact. With each smile, the cause endures and the dream never dies.

    • Amyloo

      Dreamnev, I didn’t think of it until you and Steve mentioned spending a lot of time in front of the TV this weekend, but now that I do, it felt a little like that TV vigil for Jack. Or maybe it was the same vigil with a 46-year break — the long break itself occasionally broken off fixate on coverage of Martin, Bobby and Iraq I, and 9/11 and the 2008 election). Now what?

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