Published by The Boston Globe on 1/5/2003
There's nothing to see out the windows. A dense mid autumn fog has swallowed the view of Boston Harbor from the 24th floor. So, instead, look at him. There's something to see there, framed in gray mist and rain, Edward M. Kennedy, 70 years old now and 40 years as senator and a politician and celebrity and all the rest of it. See how he's not gone all gut-fat but rather squashed, with that Irish hunch that makes the old ones look bowed and slowed, as though their lives collapse inward like stars, all the extraneous material consumed until there's nothing left but the invisible gravity of the core. See how his right hand quivers until he covers it with his left, a gentle movement that he camouflages by looking at his watch.
His conversation is still erratic, an AM radio stuck on scan, chopped to bits by strategic throat-clearing and by pauses that are long enough to be considered tactical. He's talking about how the Republicans in the House refused to fund fully an education initiative that he'd worked on with President George W. Bush and that Bush had signed with great fanfare early in his term. No Child Left Behind, it had been called. Kennedy had been so instrumental in developing the legislation that some of Bush's more conservative supporters had grumbled that the new president was being played like a tin piano by the Evil Genius of a thousand rightist fund-raising appeals.
Bush signed the bill anyway, and House Republicans walked away from funding most of it. Maybe the president knew they would. Maybe he didn't. Kennedy shrugs at the politics of it. They only came across with the money that made it easier for poor parents to be more directly involved in early childhood education.
That morning, Kennedy had visited a local facility where that part of the program had been implemented.
"It's an obvious factor," Kennedy says. "Children learn from their parents, and then they learn at school. It should be obvious that children will learn more if we can help the parents be involved. There was a lot of resistance to No Child Left Behind - on that point, even. Unbelievable. But it was put in, and it got funded, and . . . I met the parents today and saw the direct results. I met the mothers out there, and I saw what a difference that's going to make. That's enough for me today, I'll tell you."
His voice changes on those five words: I met the parents today. His identification with them is nearly a physical thing. You can see their images in his eyes. You can hear their voices in the way that his changes. It's free of all the verbal confetti, and suddenly it's full of echoes in both its sudden precision ("Let the word go forth . . .") and its controlled passion (". . . and say, `Why not?' "). He's rounded out of his chair, and there's a flash to his eyes, and he's still a big man when he straightens up. "The point is to have some positive impact on people's lives," he continues. "The danger as a legislator is that you get involved with just passing the bill. You can lose the context of what passing the bill means, and then you're just shuffling papers, and you lose that emotional contact. Maybe some people could do it. I think I'd run dry pretty quick."