Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Voice Of Ted Kennedy

By Lars Trodson

Later in my career as a reporter I didn’t like to cover political events for two reasons: one was that you usually had to wait around for long stretches of time, and two, usually there was very little news to be made.

I made a couple of exceptions when Ted Kennedy came to New Hampshire to campaign for Al Gore back in 2000. I didn’t really care what was said, I simply wanted to hear that voice. That Kennedy voice was like living history to me –- its cadence and stretched out vowels. I admit I was a little starstruck.

Every four years New Hampshire becomes the center of the universe, and local journalists get their little time in the sun with the Presidential candidates. It’s kind of a dance: the operatives from the national campaigns call you up and treat you like you’re a VIP, and you return the favor by believing it.

The minute the primary is over you can’t ever get any of these people on the phone again, but that’s OK. It’s fun while it lasts.

At the VFW Hall in downtown Portsmouth one cold night, Gore was campaigning with Kennedy, and we gathered in that old familiar place. Kennedy revved up the small crowd. I don’t recall too many people there, and maybe I remember more journalists than spectators.

Kennedy seemed old then. He was short and stout, and walked with an odd limp, as though he was favoring one side of his body. I remembered he was in a plane crash years and years ago, and maybe that was it. Or maybe it was just age and decades of triumph and struggle.

But then he started to speak. I remembered distinctly – and this was the comparison I made then, and one that I make now –- I remembered a documentary on the drug-ravaged jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. He was an absolute shell of a man, but when he started to play! It was a transformation.

Ted Kennedy had the flu that night. He was sweating –- you could see rivulets of sweat running down the side of his face. But when he started to speak it was though all that washed away and the voice was as clear and unwavering as it seemed to be when he was young. He had no written notes –- and there he was, sounding like he had always sounded, extolling the virtues of Al Gore, and yet even as I wrote down my notes I was careful to listen to the sound of his voice. That old Boston sound, sounds that dipped back into time when even rich people had to be brawlers and fighters. But it was more than that, too, because you knew that voice had been heard by John Kennedy, and Bobby, and brother Joe, before the war, and his sisters, and John Jr. and Caroline, and so many figures out of history.

I know there is another side of this story, and others can tell that one, and they will. I do think he spent decades trying to atone, which is all anyone can do, really. As far as the burdens of his life, all I know is that I wouldn’t have wanted to be Ted Kennedy for anything in the world. I do not want to bury any of my brothers or my sister -– let alone far sooner than they ought to be. I don’t want to do it.

For now, though, I can still hear that voice in the little Portmsouth VFW Hall speaking almost 10 years ago. It’s ringing in my ears, but like all of this around us, it’s fading fast.