Ted Kennedy Jr. ‘s Most Memorable Eulogy for a Most Memorable Father, Senator Edward M. Kennedy

–Richard E. Vatz

The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy was no piker in world-class eulogy competition.

I have remarked on these pages and elsewhere before his death on what should be the most remembered phrase in Sen. Kennedy’s wonderful eulogy of his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy:

“‘My brother need not be idolized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. [He should] be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.’ Some puffery and some oversimplification there, but the eulogizing is not unreasonable and is not unrecognizable as Robert F. Kennedy.”

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Senator Kennedy’s son, Ted Kennedy, Jr. gave a eulogy which movingly and lovingly and reasonably honored his father and somehow managed to include the inescapable reality that his father’s flaws were as great, if not as numerous, as his positive characteristics.

Ted Jr. said, “Although it hasn’t been easy at times to live with this name, I’ve never been more proud of it than I am today,” adding later in his speech, “He was not perfect. Far from it. But my father believed in redemption and he never surrendered. Never stopped trying to right wrongs, being they the results of his own failings or of ours. ”

That sentiment survives reality testing, yet does not take away one iota from a son’s judicious and appropriate worship of his father.

Perhaps the singularly memorable point was this one: one of the most heart-warming sections of this thoroughly heart-warming eulogy was one which reflected this pundit’s long-term perception: successful liberal politicians become important and influential largely through a conservative value hierarchy, including most prominently the “work ethic.”

As Ted Jr. relates this affecting story, “When I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with bone cancer, and a few months after I lost my leg, there was a heavy snowfall over my childhood home outside Washington, D.C., and my father went to the garage to get the old Flexible Flyer and asked me if I wanted to go sledding down the steep driveway. And I was trying to get used to my new artificial leg. And the hill was covered with ice and snow. And it wasn’t easy for me to walk. And the hill was very slick. And as I struggled to walk, I slipped and I fell on the ice. And I started to cry and I said, `I can’t do this.’ I said, `I’ll never be able to climb up that hill.’ And he lifted me up in his strong, gentle arms and said something I will never forget. He said, `I know you can do it. There is nothing that you can’t do. We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.’ “

Later in the speech Ted Jr. also recounts that when he was growing up, he practiced sailing maneuvers with his father in anticipation of races in the following days. He asked his father, “Why are we always the last ones on the water?’” His dad’s answer as quoted in the eulogy?

“ ‘Teddy,’ he said, ‘You see, most of the other sailors that we race against are smarter and more talented than we are, but the reason that we are going to win is that we will work harder than them and we will be better prepared.’ And he just wasn’t talking about boating. My father admired perseverance. My father believed that to do a job effectively required a tremendous amount of time and effort. “

What values in addition to a father’s love and hopes for his son are evident here? The critical value of avoiding dependency in life, in the first example for a child who has lost a leg, and in the second the aforementioned general dedication to hard work that has both practical consequences and which is its own reward.

There is more in Ted Jr’s eulogy of Sen. Kennedy, such as the oft-taught appreciation of learning and the lessons of personal decency to fellow human beings and adversaries (leaving out the occasional antithetical excesses in that area, such as the infamously unfair characterization of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork).

But in honoring the more typical personal ecumenicalism of his father, Ted Jr. offered this great and perfectly articulated and balanced line in the eulogy of his dad, “He even taught me some of life’s harder lessons, such as how to like Republicans.”

Ted Kennedy Jr. ends his speech with the ingenuous statement of the unaffected love all children should have for their deceased parents: “I love you, dad. I always will. And I miss you already.”

The speech is a nearly perfect tribute from loving son to father, but it again reveals the significant lesson that the values a good father teaches his son should be the values the father (and everyone else) follows in his own life.

Prof. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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