Monday, August 31, 2009

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

At some point when I was a young boy, I learned that Bobby Kennedy and I had shared the same birthday. This was in the early 1970's, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. At that point I really had no idea who he was, or that he had an older brother who had been an American President who had also been assassinated.

I actually do have a childhood memory of the 1968 U.S. Presidential election. I have a memory of living on American Street in South Philly, and most of the families that lived around us rooting for the Democratic Party candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey, to win the election against Republican Party candidate Richard M. Nixon.

While I didn't understand politics on any level, I sensed a strong 'vibe' from the adults both in my own family and my friends' families that this was a big deal. It was important in some way. It mattered. And since my people were rooting for Humphrey, well then, so was little soon-to-be 7 years old Matt Veasey.

As history tells us, Humphrey lost. I actually remember having the feeling for the first time in my young life of disappointment. I had no clue how all of the people around me could possibly be rooting for someone and expecting them to win, and then having that person lose. It just did not compute in my young mind, and I was disheartened.

Of course, as I said, I was about to turn 7 years old in just a few weeks. Between my birthday coming up, then Christmas, and the early months of 2nd grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel catholic school with the gorgeous Ms. Sarah Hillock as my teacher, there was plenty to distract me in short order and take my attention away from a silly election.

Despite having that impression of the 1968 election, I have no first-hand memory of the vital national events that had happened earlier that same year with first the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then of Robert Kennedy. It was only by somehow randomly stumbling upon the fact of our shared birthday a few years later that I began my own infatuation with the Kennedy's that would last for decades.


I began by going to my local library, and taking out and reading a book on RFK's life. I honestly don't recall which book it was, just that the impression left on my pre-teen mind was that it was a substantial book, a 'hardcover', which I had not read many of to that point, with lots of pages and pictures.

That book was also the likely beginning of a love affair that continues to this day, one that I have with non-fiction books, especially histories and biographies. I read and learned about both Bobby and his life and assassination, but also about his brother John, who had actually been President, and John's own assassination

This initial reading of the Kennedy brothers led me to become interested and pursue reading about JFK, Jackie, and 'Camelot', the nickname given to his brief Presidential term. Much of what I read made heroes of the two men, and I took on a popular belief of the times that JFK had been the victim of a conspiracy. No way could a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, have pulled off the murder alone.

All of this pursuit of knowledge about the lives of JFK, RFK and their families and times came over the course of my later grade school years and through my high school years. I had also, of course, learned that they had a younger brother, Edward 'Ted' Kennedy who had followed his brother's paths into politics.

In November of 1979 I turned 18 years old, and so the following spring, in May of 1980, for the first time ever was allowed to vote in a Presidential election. I was a Democratic Party loyalist and socially liberal idealist in those days, and so I was registered with and would be voting in the primary for the Democratic Party candidate.

The leading candidate for the Democratic nomination was the current President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. A peanut farmer and former Governor of Georgia, Carter had a largely disappointing first term, and was being considerably weakened by a foreign affairs crisis in which radical Islamists had taken American citizens hostage in Iran.

Incredibly for me, especially considering my now fully developed admiration of the Kennedys, his leading opponent would be that younger Kennedy brother Ted. Just weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, Kennedy actually came to Philadelphia and made a downtown lunch-hour speech right near my workplace. I was able to slip out of my office at First Pennsylvania Bank and attend the speech in person, standing just feet from the stage.

When the date of April 22nd, 1980 rolled around, I slipped behind the curtain of my local polling booth where I was then living in suburban Prospect Park, PA and pulled the lever for Edward 'Ted' Kennedy. I remember being excited to have the opportunity to vote, but also of being completely satisfied by the experience thanks to the Kennedy factor.

On that day, Kennedy was indeed the winner, easily taking the Pennsylvania primary. He would also count wins in New York and California for his column. Unfortunately, it was Carter who would easily take the Dem Party nomination, eventually defeating Kennedy by a 51-38 margin in the popular vote and easily receiving the Party nomination at the convention.

Carter would go on to be crushed under the weight of a perceived weak response to the Iran-hostage crisis and by an economy crippled by oil shortages and inflation. Ronald Reagan swept into office and began what became known as the 'Reagan Revolution', with Republicans taking charge of Congress for the first time in decades.

As for me, I continued as a card-carrying liberal Democrat throughout the 1980's and into the early 1990's, and even after fully transforming into a conservative Republican while riding the wave of the Newt Gingrich led 'Contract With America', I still held the view that the JFK assassination was likely a conspiracy.

The beginning of the end of my Kennedy fandom had come some years earlier when I first began to learn about and read up on the incident at Chappaquiddick island. On July 18th, 1969 in the so-called 'Summer of Love', Ted Kennedy attended a party held on the small island which was attached to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The party was a reunion for some female members of his brother Bobby's campaign staff, including Mary Jo Kopechne who was just about a week shy of her 28th birthday. As the married Kennedy went to leave the party at around 11:15pm, he agreed to give Kopechne a ride back to her hotel. An off-duty sheriff saw them over an hour later stopped on a dark road. When he approached to see if they needed help, the car suddenly took off.

A short time later, Kennedy drove the car off a small wooden bridge and into Poucha Pond. He escaped the sinking vehicle and walked back to the party as Kopechne remained trapped inside, clawing at the inside of the roof of the sinking car. He later returned to his hotel room and went to sleep, never reporting the accident. A couple of fishermen discovered the submerged car the following day.

I had never heard of this incident as a child, and never researched it as a young adult. It was only further along in my adult life that I learned of all the details in what amounted to a drunk driving episode in which Kennedy's female passenger, with whom he was likely engaging in some type of extra-marital sexual conduct, had been killed.

His culpability in the incident was largely covered up by his family's wealth and power, though the incident did derail expected 1972 and 1976 runs for the Presidency. It wasn't just Chappaquiddick, but numerous other Teddy drunken transgressions that emerged in my consciousness. During the 1990's I also became aware of numerous chinks in the 'Camelot' armor as well, as sensational stories of John and Bobby involving Marilyn Monroe and others emerged.

When the motion picture 'JFK' was released in 1991, I saw the Kevin Costner vehicle as proving, at least reinforcing, all of my Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories and beliefs. Those would be quickly dispelled as reports came out refuting much of the film's historicity. The final nail in the coffin of those conspiracy theories was my reading of the Gerald Posner book 'Case Closed', which completely dismantled all of those theories and leaves you understanding with no doubt that Oswald did indeed act alone.

The bottom line is that the Kennedy's had evolved, or perhaps devolved, in my consciousness. From childhood and adolescent heroes they had become political icons in the idealism of my young adulthood. Finally, my own political conversion and intellectual development had led me to see them for what they truly were: flawed men.

There is nothing wrong with being a flawed man. Heck, I'm one, and so is any man or woman who is reading this piece. But when Edward 'Ted' Kennedy passed away last week at the age of 77, I felt little remorse for the man for whom I had cast my first-ever Presidential vote. I did not share even a little in the remembrances and platitudes being publicly heaped upon him in the media.

To me, Teddy Kennedy at the time of his death had become a bloated, pompous, lying, cheating, drunken jerk who kept his political power due to his family's fortune and power and by cow-towing to every liberal group that came down the pike. Worse yet, one who had gotten away with drunk driving and negligent homicide. And even worse yet, the vast majority of those feting him knew it and still applauded his life.

I will never dance on another man's grave. But for me, Ted Kennedy is no loss. What I can look back on as a true loss is that vote that I gave him nearly three decades ago. A vote that he got because others led me to believe he was something that he was not, as well as because I was willing to listen to those talking heads and misleading journalists and scribes.

The man who had become known over the years as 'The Lion of the Senate' will roar no more. The 'Lion' sleeps tonight. RIP, Ted Kennedy. RIP also to my own personal political innocence and naivete.

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