Combing gray hair
By David Murray
With Robert Kennedy's death by assassination on June 6, 1968, Ted Kennedy, the youngest of four brothers, became not only head of the family but the heir apparent to the deferred hopes of Jack's and Robert's followers. Indeed, within an hour of Robert's death, Allard Lowenstein, an old friend and battler for Kennedy causes, urged Ted at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles to "take the leadership. Now that Bobby's gone, you're all we've got."
Four days later, on the train which carried Robert's body, along with family members and several hundred invited mourners from New York to the grave at Arlington Cemetery, the youngest brother's new family and political role was underscored. As the train rolled by an almost unbroken, 225-mile chain of people who came to trackside to say good-bye, Ted seemed publicly to have assumed the family leadership, making the journey easier for the widow, Ethel, and the children.
At one point in New Jersey, there was a stir at the end of the car in which I was sitting with a former classmate, the Magnum photgrapher Burt Glinn. Ted, with Robert and Ethel's youngest son, Joe, was coming through the car, greeting the mourners. "My God!" said Glinn. "Joe looks just like Bob did when we knew him in Cambridge 20 years ago." And so it was. The same smile, the same shock of hair, the same serious presence with laughter just under the surface.
The train, and the buses that took us across the river to Arlington were of course quiet, until, out of the darkness, came the music of the Harvard University Band, which had asked Mrs. Kennedy if they could be a part of the funeral. When they played, a day of grief and despair was made somehow bearable with a hymn of faith and affirmation::
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
Later, I often wondered how Ted Kennedy and his family managed to deal with the phenomenon of death, something they had had to do often before and, as it happened, would do much more after Robert's death.
Their terrible strength had been on display in November, 1963, when Jack, the youthful president, was killed. His widow, Jacqueline, and other family members served as an example, their conduct making an emotional glue for a stricken nation. With Robert's death in 1968, it was obvious that the assassins' bullets in Dallas and Los Angeles had killed not only two vibrant young men on the top of their form, but a promise of greatness that had only a truncated chance to flower.
And somehow, first with Jack, then with Robert, then with Ted, there came the strength to accept, to play their public and private roles and then to start over. Where did it come from, this ability to absorb, to accept, to adapt?
The first obvious thought was that it was part of the family's Irish heritage, but it seems to go far deeper, perhaps back to Celtic roots in Spain. Ernest Hemingway's Spanish Civil War guerrilla fighter El Sordo, trapped on his doomed hilltop in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," says, "Falta tomar la muerte como una aspirina," and perhaps it is a good idea to try to take death like an aspirin; it is, after all, a part of life.
Both Robert and Ted did it with language. At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Robert quoted Shakespeare to set his slain older brother in his proper niche: "When he shall die, take him and cut him into little stars/And he shall make the face of Heaven so shine/That all the world shall be in love with night...." He used Aeschylus to soothe a stricken black audience in Indianapolis a few hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and often, during his own 85-day presidential campaign, went to George Bernard Shaw to tell audiences, "Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not?"
Ted reiterated those words in his eulogy to Robert at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Although his voice threatened to break several times, few who were there can ever forget his simple and moving tribute. "My brother," he said, "need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He should 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."
Much later, when Ted's nephew, John, the golden young man who, as a toddler, had saluted his dead father's coffin from the White House steps in 1963, died in a small-plane crash off Martha's Vineyard, Ted returned to his Irish heritage, quoting in his eulogy William Butler Yeats' line about another young man who "did not live to comb gray hair."
Perhaps one of things that has always given the Kennedys the ability to go on in their daily public life is a pervasive thought that maybe, if they work hard enough at it, more young people in the world will live to comb gray hair.
It's not a bad ambition.
David Murray is an editorial writer for The Berkshire Eagle. As a Washington bureau reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, he spent a decade covering the career of Ted Kennedy.