I'm sure that most of us felt sad when we heard the news on Ted Kennedy this week. Here is Bob Herbert pointing out we don't know how long he has.
Tears for Teddy
By BOB HERBERT
Published: May 24, 2008
My father was stricken with throat cancer back in the early 1990s, and I remember talking to his doctor (as clearly as if it was yesterday) about his prognosis.
I was in the doctor’s office in Livingston, N.J., and my dad, Chester Herbert, was sitting in a small waiting room out of earshot but very close by. The doctor had placed X-ray photos on the wall and was pointing to the original spot of the cancer and the regions to which it had spread.
Inoperable, he said. Incurable.
“How much time does he have?” I asked.
The doctor knew my family well, and he had the saddest look on his face. “Maybe a few months, Bob.”
After looking at my face, he added: “You never know about these things. It could be longer.”
That encounter will always be in my head, and it came to mind forcefully again this week with the terrible news that Senator Edward Kennedy has brain cancer. The Kennedy family has had such a phenomenal hold on the imagination and the emotions of Americans that whenever trouble strikes a Kennedy (which is about every hour on the half-hour) millions of others react almost as if something had happened within their own family.
This hold cannot be fully explained by the glamour, the wealth, the tragedies and the never-ending melodrama of the Kennedy saga. It runs deeper than that. My phone has been ringing this week with calls from people in various parts of the country, friends of longstanding, who just wanted to talk, to express their sadness and revisit the memories of years — now stretched into decades — for which Jack, Bob and Ted are still the touchstones.
Brian Pussilano was one of the callers. He and I were best friends in high school when Ted was elected to the Senate in 1962. Jack was president at the time, Bobby was attorney general and already the Kennedys were offering the country the challenge that was far and away the most important contribution of their many years of public service.
It’s that challenge that best explains the emotional hold of the Kennedys. Whatever their personal and even tragic failings, the Kennedy message (the message that resonated so powerfully with the young back in the 1960s) was that we could step beyond our narrow personal concerns to achieve great things, that we could do better, be better, if only we had the strength and courage to work harder and dream bigger.
So there was Jack telling us to get past the fact that life was unfair, and get on with the important work of making the planet a better place to live. In his inaugural address, just before the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Jack urged his listeners to join in the “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
It was, as the biographer Robert Dallek has pointed out, a call to civic engagement, to national commitment and sacrifice — something we seldom hear from politicians.
People joined the Peace Corps in droves. We went to the moon. And Bobby and Ted, carrying the torch, never failed to implore voters to make the effort to touch the best in ourselves. The Kennedy brothers helped bolster our capacity to believe.
When my friend Brian called, he said, in a voice husky from too many cigarettes over too many years: “I’ll tell you, man, this Teddy thing has hit me hard. The brothers meant a lot. They were inspirational. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Much of the press coverage of Senator Kennedy’s illness has had the unmistakable quality of an obituary. The New York Post screamed: “TED IS DYING.”
Which brings me back to my dad. Chester Herbert was a tough guy, in the best sense, who grew up in the Depression and worked hard as hell to raise a successful family in the postwar years. He wasn’t ready to die when the doctors and the charts and the X-rays said he was supposed to.
He fought the cancer, struggled through radiation and chemotherapy, and lived a dozen years after that awful day in the doctor’s office.
The press will tell you that this is Senator Kennedy’s toughest fight. I don’t even know if that’s true. Who knows what the toughest fight has been for someone named Kennedy? This is a guy who has experienced every kind of horror, who went down in a plane, who had to fight back after Chappaquiddick, who has had two kids stricken with cancer, and on and on. So who knows?
All I know is that the show’s not over until the curtain comes down, the lights go out and everybody has left the theater.
We’re not there yet. Hang in there, Ted.