I joined more than 5,000 people at the East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol Aug. 29. It was the only opportunity for members of the general public here in Washington to pay respects to Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy of Massachusetts, the last surviving brother in a political dynasty and one of the most influential and longest serving senators in American history. He died Aug. 25 at his Hyannis Port home after a 15 month-long struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.
Where did they hide their tears? I wondered as I watched his family members assemble for a brief prayer outside the Senate chamber. They were so stoic. It was, after all, their hurt, their loss, their father, their uncle whose remains were at the front of that long, long cortege.
Dozens in the crowd who knew him only by reputation, wiped away tears or sobbed silently. How did his family members retain their composure? Where were their tears? Had they cried themselves out in private?
The sun dipped behind the Capitol Building before his body arrived. There were periods of sun, then the buttermilk sky looked like it might rain. Onlookers reminded one another that rain at a funeral was a good sign, from Heaven.
Like his martyred older brothers–President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy–Edward Kennedy earned a reputation as a champion of liberal and progressive causes, a defender of the downtrodden, a fierce advocate of Civil Rights legislation, and a supporter of universal health care for American citizens for more than 40 of his 46 years in the Senate.
He was buried near his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery.
His extensive legislative achievements and his determined advocacy for the progressive agenda earned him the nickname: “The Lion of the Senate,” the “Liberal Lion.” Even Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), the Dean of the Senate and longest serving member in Senate history was there, in a wheelchair, to pay his respects. Edward M. Kennedy served with 10 presidents.
“It leaves a lot of us with a broken heart, particularly that his passing comes in the middle of this chaotic, struggle for healthcare, his signature issue,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told me.
“There are only a few such senators. Ted Kennedy was the leader of the band,” Mrs. Norton continued.
His advocacy of civil rights legislation was longstanding. In 1965, he sought to ban the poll tax as part of the Voting Rights Act. From then on, he was in the thick of every civil rights debate, from the fair housing legislation in the ’60s to his Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which changed the way this country looked at the disabled and how best to accommodate them.During the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts in September 2005, Mr. Kennedy talked about Hurricane Katrina and how the disaster showed that poverty and racial injustice are still prevalent American society. “The stark and tragic images of human suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have reminded us yet again that civil rights and equal rights are still the great unfinished business of America.
“The suffering has been disproportionately borne by the weak, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, and largely African Americans, who were forced by poverty, illness and unequal opportunity to stay behind and bear the brunt of the storm’s winds and floods. I believe that kind of disparate impact is morally wrong in this, the richest country in the world.” Mr. Kennedy said then.
Edward M. Kennedy was an extremely wealthy man who advocated in behalf of the poor and less fortunate. “I think the most important thing for his career really is his upbringing,” Adam Clymer, author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography said in an interview on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!”
“The children were taught that verse from the Book of Luke: to those–‘Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected.’ They got a very strong Catholic upbringing from their mother, and their father said, yes, in essence, ‘You guys have an advantage, have advantages. Do something with them and give something back.'”
“Sail on Ted.” “Well done,” read two of the hundreds of signs held above the crowd which stretched from the East Capitol Plaza to the Supreme Court building and down Constitution Avenue.
His was a leading voice in the Senate opposing the invasion of Iraq. He voted against the 2002 resolution allowing President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq, calling it the best vote he cast in the Senate.
So where, where did his family members hide their tears as Edward M. Kennedy’s long, black limousine pulled up to the East Front of the U.S. Capitol for his very last Quorum Call?