Boston, Columns, Politics, War
May 21, 2008
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON HERALD: His history, public and private, always entwined with our own

By Mike Barnicle

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It seems as if he’s been with us always, his history, ours; his voice, his views taken for granted like some permanent landmark that would forever be part of life’s landscape. Now, a medical bulletin changes everything. Mortality, always there in his own mind, has potentially arrived with the cruelest of phrases: Malignant brain tumor.

So, Edward Kennedy, at 76, rests comfortably in Mass. General, waiting for tests and treatment that will put a number on his days. He is, this very public man, part of the last, unique chapter of a great sprawling American story shared by whole generations.

He is a walking compendium of history, political and personal – as if the two could ever be separated given his last name. He can sit on the front porch of his home in Hyannisport, beneath the cloudless sky of a crisp autumn day and clearly recollect the long gone morning in the summer of 1944 when a priest and a soldier arrived to tell the family that the eldest boy, the one to first carry the father’s dream, Joe, was dead at war; his plane exploded over the English Channel. The end of chapter one.

“Oh yes, I remember,” Ted Kennedy told me once. “My mother was in the kitchen and dad was upstairs. I remember clearly.”

The deaths, the disappointments, the wins and losses, the tragedies, the historic along with the self-inflicted, have all been there like open, very public wounds that halted a nation and, with one, road-blocked any ambitions Ted Kennedy had of gaining the White House.

We have all been there for the ride. The country has careened across the decades with the man. From Dallas to Los Angeles to Chappaquiddick and Palm Beach, very little has happened outside of the harsh glare of publicity.

But the man has endured and today he remains the most accessible and familiar of our politicians.

In Bedford this morning, a man named Brian Hart greets the day with an added measure of grief, knowing Kennedy as something more. Hart is a transplanted Texan, a conservative Republican and in October 2003 he and his wife lost their only son, Pfc. John Hart, to the ill-planned and ill-fated war in Iraq.

On a cold day in November, after their boy was killed in a Humvee that offered the protection of tissue paper, the Harts buried their noble son in Arlington National Cemetery. The father, turning from the grave, saw the familiar face of a man he’d never met.

“That’s the first time I ever met Sen. Kennedy,” Brian Hart once told me. “I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall and he didn’t know me. He came out of respect for John’s service.”

Brian Hart was outraged at the Pentagon’s indifference and incompetence. Like thousands of other soldiers, John Hart, 20, had been sent to battle without the best equipment he might have had.

“Within one month after John’s death, I had several meetings with Sen. Kennedy and he started Senate hearings and he changed things for a lot of other soliders who might be dead today if it were not for him,” John Hart said. “You tell me: Is that being a liberal? I would do anything for Sen. Kennedy.”

Now it is October 2006 and Ted Kennedy, days from being re-elected for the eighth time, is home again in Hyannisport. It is a spectacular Cape Cod day, the water glistening beneath a late fall sun. The senator’s boat, the Mya, sits in the harbor, perhaps 500 yards in the distance, swaying with an Indian summer breeze.

“When you’re out on the ocean, when the color of the sky and water change and you’re sailing,” he was asked. “Do you ever see your brothers?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ted Kennedy answered, his eyes welling with tears. “I see them all the time.”

And so too, we see Teddy.