When I heard Saturday morning that Senator Edward Kennedy had been rushed to a hospital with “stroke-like” symptoms, I paused for a moment and prayed that he would be okay. I did this not because I’m some great moral paragon — seriously, I am not. I did it because I like Ted Kennedy.
We’re not great friends. Truth is, I don’t know him — I barely even met him. (It was just once, actually, in a hallway in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, back when the liberals had decided that keeping Bill Clinton afloat was more important that their suddenly flexible commitment to women’s “empowerment” — but I digress.) But Kennedy matters to me — and not just in the love-your-neighbor way. I know he’s a decent man because he was decent to me.
My dad died (on my tenth wedding anniversary — how’s that for a combination?) in 1997. At the time, I was Senator Fred Thompson’s speechwriter. My boss and Sen. Kennedy did a daily radio debate, and I wrote the Republican side. The senators recorded them separately and never crossed paths.
A few days after my father died, I received a note from Kennedy’s office — a place I called maybe once a month to swap topics for the radio debate. I was touched, even though Cynical Me knew that it was probably just smart staff work. Still, sending me any acknowledgment at all, given the distant connection, was generous.
But at the bottom of the note, and in a unique hand, was a small personal line from Kennedy — So sorry, Mike.
I’ve always believed he was, in fact, sorry. Given the man’s life, I can imagine that these things matter to him.
Call me a sucker if you want. Sure, it was only a few seconds out of his day, and maybe my note was just one more in a stack of births and deaths and Chowder Festival Queens — but those were his seconds and he set them aside for me.
Not what I expected out of the Liberal Lion who — well, I’m not going to lay it all out again here. If you’re conservative, whatever you’re thinking right now about his politics and his policies and his personal life, I’ve thought the same thing. Still do.
But it occurred to me that day, and in a very personal way, that there is value — maybe to others, but certainly to the health of my own soul — in separating a man from his mistakes, and of being mindful, even when others are not, that disagreement should not be damnation.
I followed the overkill coverage while eating a burrito and waiting for my son’s ball game to begin. The anchors started calling up political figures, a lot of them who’d worked against “Ted” their whole lives.
And pretty much down to a man, they said out loud the lesson I had taken from my own little Kennedy encounter. The one who put it best was conservative pundit Cal Thomas, who said he and Kennedy went back at least two decades. He said they met when the Moral Majority accidentally sent Kennedy a solicitation, and in the follow-up Kennedy surprised Thomas by accepting an invitation to speak at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. It’s been an enriching relationship ever since, he said — they’ve written blurbs for each other’s books, kept company as co-bloviators on TV shows, gotten to know one another as individuals.
Cal said a great lesson came quick: Don’t pick your friends by their politics.
He didn’t say they agreed on much, but he said that it didn’t matter. I know why. And it’s not just about Senator Kennedy. It’s about the soul-crushing inability of many to separate the personal from the political.
Senator Kennedy’s apparent close call this weekend is an opportunity for political opponents to consider for a moment if they can name anything at all that is gained by denigrating, castigating, Hitler-izing the other side. Disagree, sure. But hate? Where’s the upside? Where’s the win?
— Michael Long is a director of the White House Writers Group.