30 April 2006
2 the teddy
there's no cable in my life, but an informant told me that teddy kennedy (wearing an incongruous bright gold godfatheresque chain bracelet) was on the daily show last week. now that he's broken into the world of late night tv, it's time we reconsider teddy. not the stern, bloated teddy of today, but teddy circa 1945-1981. charismatic, charming, carefree but troubled teddy. the teddy who knew how to party and cheated on his harvard exam. the teddy who was HOT.
(NOTE: in contemplating this teddy, we will be glossing over the teddy who drank entirely too much, cheated on his wife, gained jowls and contributed in some inscrutable way to the death of mary jo kopechne.)
it goes without saying that americans are obsessed with the kennedys (and let's do try to ignore how ironic it is for me of all people to be saying that). every time an anniversary rolls around, newscasters ask: what would have happened if joe/kick/JFK/RFK/JFK jr./jackie had lived longer? as if that's a question we might someday actually be able to definitively answer. the living kennedys provide an ongoing soap opera of sorts, but most of the attention is fixated upon those who have died and the posthumous revelations regarding them. in reality though, it is teddy who is the greatest of the family's tragedies, and i think, after looking at him for so long people forget that. he's always out there- grimacing and shouting. all white-haired, red-faced and resolute. his simple survival has led him to be overlooked.
it's easy to forget that he was a bad student who cheated on an exam so he wouldn't be branded a disappointment. that he married a beautiful woman whom he couldn't love enough and who couldn't stop drinking. that he was swept into politics by an overbearing father, who was then brutally incapacitated by a stroke and spent ten years wasting away. that, at the age of 32, he nearly lost his own life in the plane crash that broke his back and killed his friend. that he inherited the thirteen children of his two brothers, whose crushing legacy he could never live up to. then he committed a fatal error, dashing the presidential dreams that had been thrust upon him. that he gave away his fatherless neice at her wedding the same day doctors amputated the cancerous leg of his eldest son. he has spent the last twenty years passing legislation and burying the younger generation, but ultimately, in the public consciousness, teddy is remembered for two things: for not being his brothers and for whatever it was that happened at chappaquiddick. a sad reduction of a life that has lasted nearly seventy-five years.
everybody has a teddy. that person who can be so charming and charismatic and has the potential to do so much, and yet either lacks the fiber to fulfill it or is crippled by a fear of real, grown-up life and escapes into a series of personal disasters, ie. chappaquiddick, the sex-on-a-boat soiree, bar hopping with willie smith. (the polar opposite would be the joan- the insecure, overly sensitive person who becomes haplessly tangled with the charismatic charmer and can't fight his/her way out of the emotional fray without falling into a similar but opposed series of personal disasters.)
teddys are good people, but they're heartbreaking to watch. instead of taking calculated risks (a' la JFK, RFK, and mcnamara), they haplessly wander into risky situations and then respond with the improvisations of befuddlement. michael kennedy was a teddy. a non-teddy would realize that neither sexual involvement with a baby-sitter nor football on skis in a blizzard is a particularly good idea. but while a non-teddy sees the potential end of a risk and either accepts or declines it based on that end, a teddy blindly falls into risky situations- not for the thrill that results, but because it's where they've wound up. they take the risk because it's there. they're go-with-the-flow people who don't make plans.
this makes the comparative success and longevity of teddy kennedy all the more admirable. after RFK's death, he told a friend, "i can't let go. if i let go, ethel will let go, my mother will let go, and all my sisters." one of JFK's mistresses said, "the old man would push joe, joe would push jack, jack would push bobby, bobby would push teddy, and teddy would fall on his ass." though he's fallen on his ass time and time again, teddy has been very un-teddy. he has not let go. he's held up all the women and has been crushed by all the men, but he's still here. kind of like cher.
it's hard to imagine america without teddy kennedy. it's even harder to imagine the funeral of teddy kennedy, though the country has been bracing for it since june of 1968. i like to think he'll gradually fade away like 104-year-old rose. and the family will throw grand picnics for all of his birthdays, and put him up in a posh suite in the compound where he can perpetually screen home movies from the good old days. he's been holding tight for so long. i hope he gets to let go. to just be teddy.