Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ted Kennedy

I've had one in-person experience with the man, in what I suppose was the fall of 1976.* I was a junior in high school, participating in an exchange program with the John F. Kennedy School, a bilingual institution in what was then West Berlin. This was during the German students' visit over here (we went there the following summer).

During the obligatory tour of Washington, D.C., landmarks, Senator Kennedy was our host in the Capitol. We weren't his constituents, but he took a personal interest in our group. The Berlin school was said to be the first institution in the world to take his late brother's name. West Berlin and JFK had a strong emotional bond, of course. It was said that Willy Brandt, then mayor of the enclave, approached the Kennedy family at JFK's funeral and asked permission to rename the three-year-old international school in his city after the late president. What's certain is that by December 1963, the school had its new name.

Kennedy spent part of the afternoon with us on the Capitol steps, patiently answered our teenager-dense questions, and gave us the feeling he had nothing he would rather do than chat with long-haired greasy kids. He was a gracious host. I think I still have the Senate pass with his (stamped) signature, in a scrapbook somewhere.

On the Web site of the school, I see a quote from John F. Kennedy: "I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction." From his speech at Amherst College, less than a month before his assassination. It reminds me of the virtue of the Kennedys -- for all their flaws they had the power to inspire people to believe in America's possibilities. You didn't have to believe it was perfect to believe it had the power to do anything, to right itself, to kick past the blocks.

It was not Reagan's optimism, but it was stronger, in a way, because it did not dwell on the cost of failure, or often even acknowledge that failure was possible.

*A sometime-commenter here was a classmate in those days and she has a much better memory than I do, even though we drank about the same amount in the interval, so I will defer to her for details of my high school life, if she corrects this.