Thousands pay their respects to Ted Kennedy
Published 29/08/2009 | 03:28
It is pageantry, of course, tinged with pomp that befits the liberal standard bearer of the United States Senate. As we take kitten steps around the casket of Edward Moore Kennedy in the presidential library of his slain elder brother, JFK, the honour guard are as still and as shiny as waxworks. And we are silent.
Today there will be more grand regaling of Mr Kennedy, who died late on Tuesday, when President Barack Obama takes the lectern at a Boston basilica to speak of his departed friend with three other former commanders-in-chief looking on. These days of mourning – a "celebration of life" according to the Senator's office – will end with his laying to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
Last night, when the last of the public was ushered out of the viewing area, family and as many as 40 former Senate colleagues were due to gather for a private memorial Mass at the library. John McCain and Joe Biden, partisan rivals joined by their respect for Mr Kennedy, were among those set to speak.
But for all the stage-craft and choreography, and all the tributes and the stiffly arranged bouquets propped on easels, the farewell being accorded to Senator Kennedy here this week is also deeply personal.
It is personal for Kara Ann, the Senator's only daughter, who had her own battle with cancer but pulled through it and who yesterday clasped the hands of each of us as we completed our round of the casket and said how pleased she was we had come. Other members of the clan were seated at simple chairs keeping watch over the proceedings. Still more were outside under an almost autumnal morning sun.
But it may be the greatest tribute to the Senator that his passing is a personal affair also for multitudes of ordinary people from across Massachusetts. It is why thousands lined the streets on Thursday as his cortege wended its way towards the library and why thousands more queued by the waters of the harbour here to view his flag-draped casket on Thursday until 2am and again through most of yesterday.
Not everyone was able to entirely keep their composure. Linda Elsmore, 54, succumbed to gentle sniffles as she finally approached the open conference room where the Senator waited, a pale northern light cast on the coffin from a wall of glass overlooking the harbour and downtown Boston beyond. As she fought her emotions, some others turned towards the casket and made the sign of the cross.
Ms Elsmore's face, on leaving the Senator behind, wore the signs of a person both elated and saddened. Like at any family funeral, tears and smiles do battle. And, as with so many people in Boston, her connection to the Senator was not a distant one, but something real.
She was a young girl, she explains, when her step-father left her mother who found herself penniless. It was 1964 and Teddy was half way through his first term in Washington. The obituaries say he became a really great Senator in the last decade or so. But people like Linda would beg to differ.
"My mother fell apart. But she phoned Mr Kennedy's office and he spoke to her personally." He then put her on to an aide who coached her mother on receiving benefits from the Assistance to Families with Dependent Children Act, which the Senator had helped pass. "He then called her later himself to see how she was doing and told her to keep a stiff upper lip and that everything would be OK."
"It has been one programme after another of the US government that has affected my life in more ways than anyone could know," she explained, "and all bore the signature of Senator Kennedy."
In her left hand, she grasps a 1976 copy of her old college newspaper, The Gatepost, with a picture of a much younger Teddy visiting campus. She had only been at the college because of grants he had made possible.
Doug Wilder, who is 26, had got up before dawn to be here. The late Senator had come to his university campus too just five years ago. "When he came, he said this: 'You don't have to make headlines to make a difference'. Those words have always stuck in my mind and I think it's a statement that really defined his life". There is another bond. His mother died of a brain tumour 10 years ago.
It was the words of her grandfather that come today to Arneda Honicutt, 65, who is wearing a firemen's union shirt with the logo of a union-wide cancer appeal. "He always told me that great men make other men feel greater and that is exactly what we can say about Senator Kennedy."
Her husband, Edgar, at her side, she is worried who might take over his torch. "I look around and I see no one. Nobody could fill the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr and it will be hard for anyone to step in the shoes of Mr Kennedy."
In a column published by the Boston Globe yesterday, the Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, also offered his reflections on time spent with Senator Kennedy at his Cape Cod home and the impact he had on his life in politics and service. Mr Brown recalled especially the speech the Senator made at the 1980 Democratic Convention when he had just surrendered the presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter.
It "set the tone for radical politics for the next two decades. It was a great speech that had a great influence on me – one of the great speeches of our generation," Mr Brown wrote. "It laid out his life's work, and ours."
It was also the speech when Senator Kennedy said: "The dream will never die". Those mourning him now – presidents and former constituents alike – are surely hoping that that remains true, even if Mr Kennedy, the Lion of the Senate, has departed the stage.