Senator Edward M. Kennedy

I have nothing of substance to contribute to the assessment of his career right now but just wanted to add my respect, sympathy, and sadness. The most impressive and winning aspect of his personality was the way he kept on going, with good humor, despite defeats and tragedies of all sorts and vanished ambitions. With his physical bulk he made me think of some big, proud, beautiful animal -- a bull in the ring with lances hanging out of its neck, a lion or elephant that has been tattered or wounded but not brought down. As everyone has noted, his most impressive and dignified period was after he realized he would never be president but would still bring campaign-scale passion and charisma (overused term, but right in this case)  to causes he cared about.

I realize to my surprise how vividly I can remember the dramatic moments of his progression through the news. The summer night forty years ago, when I was sitting with college friends in a Northeast Washington backyard when word started circulating that Kennedy, still in his 30s, had been in some kind of traffic accident on Martha's Vineyard. The chilly fall day ten years later, when I was watching TV with friends in DC and saw in real-time astonishment that Kennedy hemmed and hawed but could not answer Roger Mudd's simple question, "Why do you want to be president?" before his run against Jimmy Carter. The unforgettable speech on the floor of the Democratic convention the following summer, when he thundered "The dream will never die!" In the hall you could feel how completely star power had drained from the beleaguered sittingformer* president Carter. (The only thing I've seen at a convention remotely as electric: Barack Obama's keynote/debut speech in 2004.) And, in keeping with the lanced-bull image, his unbelievably brave speech in favor of Obama at last year's convention. This was brave not in its content, as his opposition to the Iraq war and original endorsement of Obama had been; it was brave in the most elemental sense, that he insisted on walking to the stage unassisted and collecting himself for what was his last real public performance. The point is the way he commanded attention over his long public life.

A flawed man, who started unimpressively in life -- the college problems, the silver-spoon boy senator, everything involved with Chappaquiddick -- but redeemed himself, in the eyes of all but the committed haters, with his bravery and perseverance and commitment to the long haul. And his big, open heart. A powerful, brave, often-wounded animal at last brought down.
___
* Rushed Freudian-error typo. Former president now; sitting president then.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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