In the minds of the American public, Kennedys do not grow old. Or sick and infirm. John and Bobby are forever young. But on Monday night in Denver last week, we saw the youngest and last of the Kennedy brothers slowly totter to the podium to deliver an emotional farewell, for he is almost certainly dying.
Introduced by niece Caroline, Ted Kennedy gave a swan song that was one for the ages. Although his delivery is usually thunderous, his recently diagnosed brain cancer, coupled with the rigors of medical treatment, reduced his voice to a lower key that at times was almost a whisper. The trademark thatch of white hair was thinner and completely gone in places. His usually pink Irish skin was pallid.
Teddy's presence reminded us once again of the passionate idealism that his brothers inspired in a time when hope and optimism were allowed to flourish. But most important, Teddy's role was to pass the baton of the Kennedy legacy to another family — that of Barack Obama.
Michelle Obama, wife of the Democrats' new hero, accepted the baton with a style and grace that channeled Jackie Kennedy. Following Kennedy's appearance later Monday night, her touching speech about her life, her husband, and their children contained a measure of Camelot. The legacy had come full circle.
For a man stricken with terminal cancer to leave his sickbed against the advice of his doctors exemplified a will of forged iron. His gallant promise to be at Senator Obama's inauguration and to be back at work in the Senate the day after that brought tears to the eyes of thousands in the crowd — and surely millions watching at home. "The work begins anew," he ended. "The hope rises again. The dream lives on."
Those were the same words with which he had concluded his concession speech at the Democrats' New York convention in 1980. They were the measure of a man with the heart of a lion. In Denver, the lion roared for probably the last time.
Almost as memorable was another sayonara on Tuesday of last week. Though not tinged with the same degree of sadness as Kennedy's, it was laden with unspoken regrets for what might havc been.
When Hillary Clinton showed up in Denver for the final speech of her personal campaign year, she brought the house down. In a riveting and historic speech, possibly the best of her career, Clinton gathered the sour grapes of her campaign, pressed out the acid of disappointment, sweetened them with sisterly reflection, and distilled them into a sparkling champagne that got Democrats punch-drunk with unity.
Early on, it appeared that Hillary might actually be setting up for a grudge match, with some diehard rope-a-dope rhetoric about her own reasons for seeking the presidency.
The crowd was with her, but you could almost hear its collective brain thinking, "Hillary, girlfriend, don't make this all about you anymore." As if telepathic, she quickly did a pivot, addressing those of her supporters who were present as well as the 18 million others of whom she has so often spoken — those who voted for her during the long primary season.
"Were you in this campaign just for me?" she asked. And, at that moment, her "me" morphed fully into an "us," as she began to recite the reasons all Democrats should support Obama for president. She expressed an appeal for party unity, telling her apostles that by supporting Obama, they, in fact, would be making history. It was a display of political brilliance that was both self-sacrificial and powerful, persuasive to anyone willing to be persuaded.
The "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits," indeed! When, later on, various Republicans (notably John McCain's vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin) began pitching to candidate Clinton's constituency, you knew their loyalty had been already pledged elsewhere — and not just for partisan political reasons.
Cheri DelBrocco writes the "Mad as Hell" column at memphisflyer.com. She accompanied Flyer writers Jackson Baker and Chris Davis to the Democratic convention in Denver.