Dreaming Dreams

30 08 2009

[You can listen to this letter here, or download it by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store.]

I have never met Winnie the Pooh. However, I have met somebody who once met Christopher Robin, a close companion of Winnie the Pooh. Consequently I often tell people that when they are shaking my hand, they are shaking a hand that has shaken a hand that has shaken the hand that once held the paw of Winnie the Pooh. Unfortunately nobody ever seems to get quite as excited as me when I tell them.

This week Senator Edward Kennedy died, and so I have had his name to a growing list of people I will never be able to meet. Instead I will have to rely on second-hand accounts, anecdotes and stories passed on from those who managed a physical encounter with him.

This particular case is made all the more distressing because those stories tell us that the Senator’s physical presence was so impressive – the dashing good looks embedded in the Kennedy genes, the glinting blue eyes, the bellowing voice of the Lion of the Senate, all mixed with buckets of personal charm.

My desire to meet Teddy Kennedy was not simply born out of a desire to increase the value of my autograph book, or to bag an impressive anecdote. Like so many others who are now on my list, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch who I have written about in these letters, the Senator was a living link to something greater than any one man. He was able to recall growing up with his brothers President John F., and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy. He can account for forty-seven years in the Senate, not one of them wasted or idle.

But as I grow up, and hopefully mature, I am beginning to understand that meeting people isn’t the only way you can be affected by them. In fact, a brief handshake is probably not going to achieve a great deal.

Without meeting any of them – in fact, to my knowledge, without meeting anybody who has met any of them – the Kennedy brothers have had some impact on my life. Hanging above the desk where I tend to write these letters is an elegant photographic portrait of President Kennedy. Indeed, I set up a thing called the New Generation Society in honour of one of his great quotes (you’ll hear it in a minute).

As I engage in discussions within the Church of England about women and gay priests, I am often prompted to think of Bobby Kennedy and his work with the Civil Rights movement. And as I begin to think of what politics really means to me, Senator Kennedy’s words ring through my mind – that a society will be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.

So, for me, the death of Senator Kennedy is a significant event, but I appreciate that it would be self-indulgent to spend a whole ten-minutes talking about my love affair with the Kennedy family.

The death of Senator Kennedy means something much more to a much larger number of people. For the first almost in living memory, there is no Kennedy at the centre of United States politics. Even before the Second World War, Old Man Kennedy Joe, was the U.S. Ambassador in London and wielded considerable influence in Boston circles.

His son, John F. Kennedy proved a tough opponent to Richard Nixon in the Presidential election of 1960, though possibly not without the help of his father’s cash. JFK fuelled speculation of a fix by routinely joking that his father had asked him: “Exactly how many votes do you need to win – I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

The Kennedy Presidency saw an escalation in tensions with the Soviet Union, the establishment of the Peace Corps and some strides towards civil rights equality.

After the violent death of the President shocked the world, Bobby Kennedy took up the weighty legacy. He used its weight to mount a damning criticism of the War in Vietnam, and to amplify the work of Martin Luther King. When assassination struck again, the legacy fell to Teddy who ever since has worked to make real the dreams of his brothers.

So, the Kennedy story now draws towards its close. No longer will we be able to turn to the Kennedys for a soundbite to define the age: “The torch has been passed to a New Generation of Americans”

The scandal, and personal failure which has kept enthralled all those people with little interest in politics will no doubt continue, but they will no longer resonate the corridors of power.

We can hope that the Kennedy Curse, that his seen so many violent and tragic deaths in that family may now be lifted. And we must wave goodbye to that potent combination of stunning good looks, fabulous wealth, enormous power and a glamour that bests even Hollywood’s greatest.

The Kennedy family lives on, but it is no longer public property.

Well, it may well feel unfamiliar to us not to have a Kennedy playing a central role in leading U.S. politics, but it would be too early for us to say it is truly the end of the Kennedy era. There is one thing that the Kennedy brothers leave us – something that cannot be destroyed by the assassin’s bullet, or the slow march of cancer.

They leave us the dream. Had the Kennedys spoken to us with empty rhetoric, we would have been moved, and cheered and waved in the same measure, but very quickly we would have forgotten them.

For many decades to come, Americans will be instructed to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But more than this, Americans will benefit from the hard core of political will dedicated to seeing wrong and trying to right it, to seeing suffering and trying to heal it, to seeing war and trying to stop it.

Even in his death, Senator Kennedy may have acted to move forward a key plank of his dream. Since he left the Senate last week it has become distinctly uncomfortable for any republicans to mount opposition to President Obama’s healthcare plan. Teddy Kennedy’s dream of a national healthcare plan for all is today closer to becoming reality than at any point in his life.

So, the dream which Teddy Kennedy kept safe for so long passes to us. We are charged with facing the fresh challenges this new century will bring with the bravery, determination and heroism with which Teddy and his brothers faced those of the last.

We must pledge to keep it alive. Forgive me if I twist the late Senator’s words for my own purposes: “For all those whose cares had been his concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

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One response

17 10 2009
TC Cahill

Hi James. If I may be so bold, I’d say you reading style is a combination a contributor to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ and a Church of England clergyman. I listened to to the end! Good luck in the classroom.

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