It is perhaps nothing more than a kind of tribal madness, a mix of sentimentality and romanticiscm and dashed hopes. For those who grew up in a certain America at a certain time, the death of Edward M. Kennedy is about so much more than the falling of the last branch of a legendary political family.
If you understand the madness, you know that when Teddy Kennedy dies and it's important to you, you think of a speech his brother Bobby made long ago in South Africa, before apartheid ended, before Mandela was released from bondage.
In Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, speaking to college students, Robert Kennedy said this: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
When Teddy Kennedy dies, you think of being in junior high school in 1963 and being sent home to your Irish-Catholic family to watch your father weep in front of the television at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. You remember the night Bobby Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles and you remember thinking that, with Dr. King dead just a few weeks, the country you were living in was broken and forever different. You had no idea that in many ways it would only get worse that summer, and beyond.
When Teddy Kennedy dies you reflect on the words of the Boston Globe obituary today, which characterized him as "an American original:"
"He was the youngest child of a famous family, but his legacy derived from quiet subcommittee meetings, conference reports, and markup sessions. The result of his efforts meant hospital care for a grandmother, a federal loan for a working college student, or a better wage for a dishwasher."
You remember that, drunk or sober, frankly, Teddy Kennedy was the guy who was never too busy or too cynical to give up on the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP. That's heating oil subsidies for old people in cold places. Quaint, huh?
Or, more famously, he was tireless on health care reform that was not marginal or incremental or designed to make sure the insurance companies and the Chamber of Commerce didn't get too upset. Or taking on Judge Bork at a particularly low ebb for the Democratic Party and those whose interests and beliefs they purport to represent.
Immigration. The minimum wage. Childhood education. A just peace in Northern Ireland. The Americans with Disabilities Act. OSHA. Voting rights. A roaring opposition to Bush's Iraq war in 2002. Nothing here for the faint of heart or the "Blue Dogs."
The New York Times headline today called him "Gifted, Flawed." Fair play to the New York Times. Most Irishmen would take that one for a sendoff.
For millions of Americans, of course, this is nonsense.
The political class that for 40 years raised untold millions by demonizing the unabashed liberal from Massachusetts have already gotten plenty of room to talk about Kennedy's failings and weaknesses. He was an imperfect man, Lord knows, and the yammerers and the haters on cable TV will take a respite from scaring old people over health care to remind us of all that.
And his death comes at a moment when his chosen candidate for President, the triumphant Barack Obama, is in full retreat on matters great and small, many of them important to his most celebrated backer in 2008.
To better days, as the Irish would say. And when Teddy Kennedy dies and it's important to you, you recall the words he used in his heart-breaking eulogy for his brother, Robert, in June, 1968: "He was always on our side."