More than a decade ago, I asked Ted Kennedy what I thought at the time was a delicate question: How will you know when it's time to call it a career? I don't remember his exact words, but I'll never forget the broad grin and the gleam in his eye. I'm like Pedro Martinez, he said. I've still got my fastball, and when I've lost it, I'll know it's time to leave the field. Sure enough, Ted Kennedy kept pitching right to the end.
More than a decade ago, I asked Ted Kennedy what I thought at the time was a delicate question. You've watched colleagues grow old in the Senate, I said, perhaps mentioning Strom Thurmond, who was then being wheeled from vote to vote, more zombie than right-wing firebrand. How will you know when it's time to call it a career?
I don't remember his exact words, but I'll never forget the broad grin and the gleam in his eye. I'm like Pedro Martinez, he said. I've still got my fastball, and when I've lost it, I'll know it's time to leave the field.
Sure enough, Ted Kennedy kept pitching right to the end.
As a tumor inexorably grew in his brain, Kennedy exacted a promise from Barack Obama that he would make health care reform a first-year priority, according to a new book on the 2008 campaign by two Washington Post reporters. In return, Kennedy gave Obama his endorsement and pulled out all the stops to get him elected.
Kennedy kept working on the nation's health even as his own deteriorated. Working through staff and colleagues on the Senate committee he chaired, he drafted a bill and got his committee to approve it. Perhaps, if he had been at full strength, the bill would have moved further by now - and his skills will be missed when the toughest negotiations take place this fall.
But he kept working on what he called "the cause of my life" right to the end. His last public act was to write Gov. Deval Patrick, urging state law be changed to allow for the appointment of an interim senator to serve until a special election could be held. Kennedy was trying to lock in one more vote for health care reform: the vote that would be cast from the seat he knew he was soon to leave behind.
I didn't know Kennedy well, but I watched him closely for a long time. Every few years, he'd come by our offices for wide-open question-and-answer sessions with editors and reporters. I sat down with him for a long interview a few years ago in his Capital Hill office, his two Portuguese water dogs at his feet. I visited the Hyannisport compound twice for press events, and once was taken for a sail on Ethel's boat.
Kennedy was an old-style politician. I remember when he spoke at the dedication of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in 2004. At the end of his remarks, he burst into a chorus of "My Wild Irish Rose" with great gusto. Modern politicians generally don't sing at their rallies, but I expect "Honey Fitz," Ted's grandfather and Boston's first Irish mayor, did.
Politics was Kennedy's craft, and he knew how to play it. He understood the details of organization, the handling of allies and opponents. He knew how to charm the smallest crowd and his lion's roar could bring the largest audience to its feet. Kennedy was old-style but never old-fashioned.
But he was also the rare politician who had no desire or need to consult with pollsters before making up his mind. He didn't worry about offending his "base." He was an heir to Boston's Irish political machine, but was booed in Southie for years because he supported forced busing to desegregate the public schools. He took hits for working with George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind, then stood up to Bush on the invasion of Iraq while other Democrats balked at opposing a popular president.
I once saw a picture of 2-year-old Teddy sitting on the lap of the pope when Ambassador Joe Kennedy brought the clan to Rome. The Kennedys' association with the Catholic church was both deeply personal and politically beneficial. Ted supported abortion rights anyway, a position that was risky on both fronts.
That visit to Rome, chronicled in newsreels shown in U.S. movie theaters in the '30s, is a reminder that Ted Kennedy grew up in the spotlight. But the details of a long public life are often lost on the young. I remember after one of Kennedy's visits to our office in Framingham, a young reporter noted with rolled eyes how Kennedy waddled down the hall. Some of it had to do with girth, but I later explained how in 1964 - long before the reporter was born - Kennedy's back was severely broken in a small airplane crash in western Massachusetts. The pilot and an aide were killed, and Ted was pulled from the crash by the other passenger, Sen. Birch Bayh.
Kennedy lay flat on his back for five months, winning re-election from his hospital bed. Paying for the treatment was no problem for his wealthy family, but Kennedy kept asking aides and visitors how people without means managed to pay their hospital bills in similar straits. Thus was born his lifetime dedication to universal health care.
As we walked him to the front door, I noticed Kennedy was traveling in a special van that allowed him to lay down and rest his back on the way to his next meeting. And I realized that his back had surely stiffened painfully as he sat with us for well over an hour. He never let it show.
Kennedy sometimes wandered in his answers. He carried a half-century's worth of memories and arguments in his head, and any issue could prompt a long walk through the history of how we got to this point. But he always found his way to the end of the sentence. He had a sharp mastery of details. At one point he cited the number and size of guns on a destroyer, knowledge gleaned through years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, always at his command.
Kennedy's name is on legislation that has touched the lives of millions - the short list of his greatest hits has been often repeated since his death last Tuesday - but there is more. Special education as we know it today came from bills he authored in the '60s. Just last year, he accomplished his long-held goal of mandating that mental health treatment be given parity with physical health in insurance coverage.
But smaller bills benefited from his attention as well. The last time he called me, it was to pitch for an editorial supporting a bill that would reform the way the Food and Drug Administration approves new medications, a topic far too dry for the front page, that had been ignored by editorial page editors as well.
He could keep up with the policy wonks, and when a big issue was on the table, he was always in the fray. But what really got him going were the triumphs and tribulations of individuals. One of his top aides once pleaded with me to send him stories of people with problems. The senator, he said, likes nothing better than using his power to help an individual in need.
Our editorial board meetings are cordial but businesslike. So it was unusual when two of our staff stopped Kennedy as he was leaving for a few personal words. One editor had a brother with mental retardation and wanted to thank Kennedy on behalf of her family for all he had done for people with disabilities. The other, a reporter, wanted to thank Kennedy for his help getting approval for his step-daughter to immigrate from China.
As Ted Kennedy walked stiffly out the door to his waiting van, I found myself thinking that those expressions of gratitude - the first on behalf of an entire category of disadvantaged Americans welcomed into the mainstream with his help; the second on behalf of a single reunited family - probably meant more to him than any editorial I would ever write.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.