New York's Love Affair With the Kennedys

A family of courage and tenacity -- just like New Yorkers

In 1968, after the tragic assassination of his brother, New York Senator Robert Kennedy, as the people of this nation reeled from shock, Ted Kennedy delivered the eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

I was among the people who listened as he declared: "My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

The Kennedy brothers had a special relationship with New York. I saw it in the eyes of thousands as they greeted  presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in a ticker tape parade up lower Broadway in 1960. I marveled at the enthusiasm of the crowds as they surged around the open convertible bearing the couple. Clearly people related to this handsome, smiling young man and his beautiful wife. As they rode up the Canyon of Heroes, it was almost like we were witnessing the prelude to a coronation, as indeed it was.

Earlier I was with Jack Kennedy at a rally in the Bronx on Fordham Road and the Concourse when he told the crowd: "I come to the Bronx as an old Bronx boy. I used to live in the Bronx."

He was talking about the years the family spent in Bronxville and his attendance at the Riverdale Country School. Telling people that you’re one of them, even when you have a Boston brogue, is one of the oldest tricks in the political game book.

In many ways, the Kennedys were a New York family. Robert became a senator here. The sisters, Patricia Lawford Kennedy and Jean Kennedy Smith lived here and so did many nieces, nephews and cousins.

In 1980 he tried to wrest the Democratic nomination from the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. Kennedy suffered humiliating losses in the primaries. But New York gave his campaign, temporarily, new life. He beat Carter here by 20 points.

Ted Kennedy represented what’s left of the liberal wing of the Democratic party.  Going back to the era of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, liberals dominated the party. The climactic rally of Democratic campaigns, for President or Governor, was always held at 37th Street and Seventh Avenue in the heart of what was then the garment district, on the day before Election Day. These were days when unions played a major role in Democratic politics. The garment workers union was a major player.

Ted Kennedy represented that old time Democratic religion at a time when so-called blue dog Democrats and middle of the roaders have risen to  positions of power in what was once essentially a New Deal-Fair Deal party.  Ted Kennedy’s valiant struggle to pass meaningful health care legislation, his ability to reach across the aisle in the Senate and win the friendship of Republicans and others of diametrically different views endeared him to  fellow senators.

He was influential in passing laws affecting civil rights, education, voting rights and labor. When Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, one of only two senators to have served longer than Kennedy, heard that his Massachusetts colleague had a brain tumor, he wept.

President Obama today said: "An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest U.S. senator of our time."

At the Democratic convention in New York in 1980, after an unsuccessful attempt to defeat and replace the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter,  at the head of the ticket, Ted Kennedy, moved much of his audience to tears as he said: "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."

Last year, when he addressed the Democratic convention in Denver, he could barely walk but his voice was strong.  Again, many in the audience were in tears as he declared: "It’s so wonderful to be here, and nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight. I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future to rise to our best ideals -- to elect  Barack Obama president of the United States."

Perhaps the words that sum up  best his life and ideals and those of his brothers are the words, borrowed from George Bernard Shaw with which the Kennedys often ended their speeches.  Ted Kennedy used them as he ended his eulogy for his brother Bobby here at St. Pat’s:

"Some men see things as they are and say why.

I dream things that never were and say why not."

New Yorkers related to the Kennedy boys because they were fighters. Now they are gone -- but we remember fondly their courage and tenacity.

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