Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lion at the Crossroads

One night, nearly years 30 ago, I was out on a date in Times Square.

I had taken my then-girlfriend to see a comedy called “Mornings at Seven,” which was quite popular at the time.

It was my date’s birthday and we had started off with dinner at a small French restaurant, went to the show, and then walked around Times Square like a couple of tourists from Ohio.

It was a warm spring night and even though Times Square--the so-called "Crossroads of the World"--hadn’t been Disney-fied yet, the place still had a magical feel to it. Or maybe I was just in love.

As we walked down a street somewhere in the theater district, we noticed that people coming in the opposite direction were stopping in their tracks and staring at man who was walking a few yards in front of us.

It was really a cinematic moment as we got closer, anxious to know who he was and why he was getting all this attention.

There were several people with him and they were all entering a club. We caught up with the guy just as he turned in our direction--seemingly in slow motion--and we got a good look at him just before he disappeared into the building.

It was Ted Kennedy.

He looked like a movie star, smiling and nodding to everyone around him. We stood there for a few seconds, not quite believing our eyes and then the doorman approached us and nodded toward the group.

“Kennedy party?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” I said like a card-carrying idiot and then my date and I walked down the street.

“I don’t like how he treated his wife,” my girlfriend said a few moments later.

I shrugged, not really caring about Kennedy’s martial problems. I was just beginning to realize how I had just screwed up a fabulous opportunity.

“I should have said ‘yes,’ damn it,” I whined. “I should have told them we were with the Kennedy party.”

Why did I tell the truth? Why didn’t I just fib to that doorman and stroll in the club with my date like we belonged there?

So many successful entertainers, politicians, and business people got their start in life with a lucky break, a chance meeting, and a little bit subterfuge. But I had to make like George Washington with that goddamn cherry tree. Can I blame this on Catholic school, too? Oh, hell, why not?

For a while after that evening I fantasized about what it would have been like if I had actually joined Ted Kennedy and his guests.

I imagined meeting all sorts of celebrities and political types; maybe taking Ted aside and telling him some of my big ideas. Perhaps Ted would have been impressed with this guy from Brooklyn and given him a high profile job someplace in his organization. I could have been the next Pierre Salinger.

But I didn’t take that risk. So I didn’t join the Kennedy party and I never saw Ted in the flesh again. And now today, so many years later, he’s being buried in Arlington Cemetery.

My father was an Irish Catholic, and thus genetically predisposed to worship all things Kennedy and I know, had he been in my shoes, he would have blasted headfirst through a brick wall to be anywhere in the vicinity of one of the royal family members.

As a lifelong salesman and a rather aggressive individual, he would have had no problem lying to that doorman’s face and joining the party. Christ, my father would have probably said he was a Kennedy, which in a way he was.

My dad would not listen to any discouraging words about the Kennedy family--it was like bad-mouthing Jesus.

I inherited that devotion and for the longest time I defended the Kennedys against all kinds of criticism. Jack had an affair with Marilyn Monroe? Ridiculous. Bobby had a fling with her, too? Like hell he did. I really didn’t need a doorman to let me join the Kennedys. I was already in.

I remember the Chappaquiddick incident unfolding on the evening news when I was a child and I have vague recollection of Ted’s televised address where he tried to explain his atrocious behavior.

Please note: I believe he was responsible for Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, even though he was never convicted of that crime. CNN.com ran a story quoting then-Edgartown Police Chief Jim Arena as saying he would have charged Kennedy with vehicular homicide, but that charge that did not exist in 1969.

The CNN story said the diver who pulled Kopechne from the car “told media outlets she may have lived had Kennedy called police immediately” and a State Police detective claimed that Kennedy "killed that girl the same as if he put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger."

Kennedy’s name will be forever associated with this tragedy and rightfully so. This was the crossroads in his life.

But I also believe he did great things as a senator and that instead of sitting back and living off his trust fund, Ted Kennedy sincerely tried to help people.

He has gone to his reward now, far beyond the range of critics who have been shrieking “what about Chappaquiddick?!” for the last four decades every time a Republican got into trouble.

These are the people whose hatred of the Kennedys is as fervent and illogical as my father’s devotion to them.

I'm always amused by these individuals who foam at the mouth at the very mention of the name, but still try to palm themselves off as level-headed and thoughtful people who are only interest in justice and fair play.

Why, yes, of course you are. I never doubted that for a minute.

I grew up watching Kennedys live and die and now the last brother is gone.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten very far if I had told that doorman that I was with Ted. Someone probably would have asked “who the hell are you?” and quickly shown me the door.

But who knows? Maybe that night in Times Square was a crossroads in my life and I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if I had simply said “yes” instead of “no.”

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