In the days approaching Saturday's funeral mass for Sen. Ted Kennedy, there was much discussion as to how much actual politics would be in evidence. In particular, there was the question as to how much contemporary politics would intrude -- and whether President Obama's eulogy in particular would touch upon today's raging health care debate.
In the end, the contemporary was put aside more in favor of values and lessons more enduring. And while politics made up a fair portion of the funeral service, it was a genuflection towards a certain kind of politics.
It's only appropriate considering who was being remembered: After all, even as a memorial service is, by definition, a personal event. when the departed is arguably the most significant legislator of his time and towering patriarch of the nation's preeminent political family, how could politics be completely ignored? Coming through in the words this day was a very strong message: Politics can be lived with both a lower-case and a capital "P." Ted Kennedy was a practicioner and participant of the capital-P sort of politics: One had to be to get elected and often to survive the rough and tumble of the ongoing electoral and legislative process.
But it was in lower-case "P" politics that Kennedy became a master. The two forms are inextricably linked. But the small-P variety is that which requires the soft-touch, the ability to see beyond partisanship, beyond one's own personal principles and into a broader humanity that can help accomplish things -- help make over 300 pieces of legislation become law. That was evident and most strongly emphasized in several eulogies tonight. Perhaps it was the saddest responsibility that fell to Kennedy -- to be so often the Official Eulogizer of the Kennedy Clan -- that forced him to embrace skills appropriate to master the small-P politics. Indeed, President Obama seemed to link those two aspects of Kennedy's life:
This spirit of resilience and good humor would see Ted Kennedy through more pain and tragedy than most of us will ever know. He lost two siblings by the age of sixteen. He saw two more taken violently from the country that loved them. He said goodbye to his beloved sister, Eunice, in the final days of his own life. He narrowly survived a plane crash, watched two children struggle with cancer, buried three nephews, and experienced personal failings and setbacks in the most public way possible.
It is a string of events that would have broken a lesser man. And it would have been easy for Teddy to let himself become bitter and hardened; to surrender to self-pity and regret; to retreat from public life and live out his years in peaceful quiet. No one would have blamed him for that.
But that was not Ted Kennedy. As he told us, "(I)ndividual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in — and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves."
The president noted that that sentiment arose from Kennedy's rising from an earlier time:
He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect — a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.
And that's how Ted Kennedy became the greatest legislator of our time. He did it by hewing to principle, but also by seeking compromise and common cause — not through dealmaking and horse-trading alone, but through friendship, and kindness, and humor.
Again, hard work was certainlly necessary to get legislation passed, but it was a sense of humanity and a common touch that ultimately got deals made. Standing there as the emissary from the American people thanking a public servant for his years of service, Obama shared a lesson on life at a person's death.
It was the perfect complement to the stirring, tear-inducing eulogy given by Teddy Kennedy Jr., who stepped into his father's big shoes as the Family Eulogizer. His younger brother, Patrick, is the one who went into the "family business," but he's the one who clearly produced an address that reflected the family's potent mix of personal remembrance, salute to public service and a mixture of wit and sentiment that verged on poetry.
He introduced himself as "Teddy Kennedy, Jr. -- a name I share with my son, a name I shared with my father. 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."
He shared a tear-inducing anecdote (indeed, he broke down as he told it) of when he was gettiing used to having to walk with an artificial leg after he lost his real one to cancer: "My father taught me that even our most profound losses are survivable, and that is — it is what we do with that loss, our ability to transform it into a positive event, that is one of my father’s greatest lessons." Again, that was the same message Obama gave -- perseverance through pain and loss brings great accomplishment. It enables one to live what Teddy Jr. called "a full and complete life."
In that regard, even as the late senator's politics were saluted by Kennedy Jr. (calling his father, "a proud member of the Democratic Party") and Obama ("the soul of the Democratic Party"), the themes of this funeral ended up being being remarkably non-partisan. They were lessons for all Americans -- faith, hard work, familial bonds, the attentiveness of a father and loving patriarch, a man of principle warmly respected and loved even by those with whom he could disagree.
These life lessons were gifts that Ted Kennedy gave his family as father, uncle, grandfather and general patriarch (a role thrust upon him at the age of 36) and they were gifts that the Kennedy family gave to their country over the better part of a century. And the nation got to hear those lessons one final time foday.
But, being a political family, the Kennedys smartly did not let the issue of health-care -- or Ted's passion for it -- go overlooked. As part of the Catholic Mass' intercessions of the faithful, the offerings were presented by quoting or paraphrasing many of Kennedy's own statements over the years. Coming out of the mouths of one of the youngest Kennedys, Max Allen, his daughter Kara's son, were these words:. "For what my grandpa called the cause of his life, as he said so often, in every part of this land, that every American will have decent quality health care, as a fundamental right, and not a privilege, we pray to the Lord."
It was a nice way of recognizing both the "cause of [Kennedy's] life," but also his "life's work" -- politics big and small -- in a muted, respectable manner.
The question for the Democratic Party -- especially President Obama upon whom Ted Kennedy did his best to pass on the Kennedy torch -- is whether the small-P politics which the Senate lion mastered can be absorbed by a new generation.