I was overseas when Sen. Edward Kennedy died, and a European reporter asked me what my “most vivid memory” of the great man was. I didn’t like to say, because it didn’t seem quite the appropriate occasion. But my only close encounter with the Lion of the Senate was many years ago at Logan Airport late one night. A handful of us, tired and bedraggled, were standing on the water shuttle waiting to be ferried across the harbor to downtown Boston. A sixth gentleman hopped aboard, wearing the dark-suited garb of the advance man, and had a word in a crew member’s ear, and so we waited, and waited, in the chilly Atlantic air, wondering which eminence was the cause of our delay. And suddenly there he was on the quay, looming out of the fog. He stepped aboard. The small launch lurched and rocked, waves splashed the deck, luggage danced in the air, and the five of us all grabbed for whatever rail was to hand as the realization dawned that we’d been signed up for a watery excursion with Senator Kennedy.
This was Ted at his most ravaged, big and bloated, before his new wife (also in attendance) had had a chance to get his excesses under control. One of the recurring refrains of the weeks of eulogies was his apparently amazing affinity for “ordinary people,” as if this were now some kind of personal achievement for a United States senator, who after all can’t be expected to have the same careless ease with the common run of humanity as, say, one of the more inbred late Ottoman sultans. But Ted, we were assured, was great with “ordinary people.” Not that night, he wasn’t. He stood in the center and glanced at us, awkwardly, in the way of celebrities who find themselves outside their comfort zone and aren’t sure the “ordinary people” know quite what the rules are. I assumed he’d offer a casual “Hey, sorry for keeping you waiting” before the roar of the motor prevented further conversation. But he said nothing, which, given that the other passengers were his constituents, struck me as a little odd.
Years later, I saw him again, in action at the Senate. Well, not in “action.” It was the impeachment trial of President Clinton, and for some reason the emirs of Incumbistan had been prevailed upon to come in on a Saturday for the proceedings. Under the convoluted trial procedures, members of the Senate had to submit questions to their respective party leaders, who then passed them to the chief justice, who then read them out. So the pages were run off their feet ferrying lethal interjections from lead Democrat saboteurs Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy up to the minority leader, Tom Daschle. One page had barely dropped off Senator Harkin’s question when the wheezing, heaving senator from Massachusetts called him over. From up in the gallery, I thought, “Aha!” I was there to cover the trial for various British and Commonwealth newspapers, and, as Ted Kennedy’s the only senator any foreigners have heard of, his contribution to date had been disappointing: He had spluttered to life in the preceding weeks only to cough Mount St. Helens–scale eruptions across the chamber. He declined to cover his coughs. Indeed, he gave the vague sense of assuming that’s what the rest of the Democratic caucus was there for. I remember Blanche Lincoln shooting him a disapproving look after one Niagara of saliva came her way.
So, on this Saturday afternoon, his unexpected contribution to the trial would clearly be a major part of my coverage. What devastating interjection, I wondered, would he be springing on the prosecutors? The page padded silently over to the senator’s seat in the back. Ted whispered to him, and the page made his way to the end of the row, then worked his way along the row in front, squeezing past senators until he was directly facing Ted’s desk. He then dropped to his knees — which, as it turned out, was the nearest the Clinton trial would ever get to a restaging of the acts at issue. But instead he leaned under the desk and adjusted Ted’s footrest by an inch and a half. The senior senator from Massachusetts seemed satisfied, and the page was squeezing his way back past the other senators when Ted motioned him to return. Ignoring a frantic Pat Leahy waving some critical note for Tom Daschle, the page reversed course, squeezed past Senator Graham of Florida yet again, and dropped to his knees to move Ted’s footrest another smidgeonette. He then rushed off to pick up Senator Leahy’s note. Senator Kennedy didn’t thank him.
I have been received at Buckingham Palace, and over the years I’ve also met the Queen of Spain, the Queen of the Netherlands, and various other royal personages. And I can’t imagine any of them demanding of their footmen what Ted Kennedy did. But then they’re only Euro royalty, not Massachusetts royalty. “At the end of the day,” said Evan Bayh of his colleague, “he cared most about the things that matter to ordinary people.” This was, observed many a eulogist, his penance for Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne — or, as the Aussie Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair put it, “She died so that the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act might live.” This, of course, is the classic trade-off of monarchical societies throughout the ages: The sovereign’s industrial-scale exercise of his droit de seigneur with whatever comely serving wench crosses his path is mitigated by his paternalistic pity for the humblest of his subjects.
Strange how the monarchical urge persists even in a republic two-and-a-third centuries old. Time to mothball the Camelot footstools? I hope so.