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Three speeches that defined the 'Lion of the Senate'

Sen. Edward Kennedy had his share of verbal gaffes – some of them costly – but he will also be remembered as an impassioned orator.

By Staff writer / August 26, 2009

Sen. Edward Kennedy speaks during opening night of the Democratic National Convention.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/ The Christian Science Monitor

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Washington

Along with a legislative record of historic scope, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts will be remembered for a legacy of words that glowed, at least in public.

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He wasn’t called the Lion of the Senate merely out of respect for his seniority or gravitas. Senator Kennedy roared his words. His classic speeches settled into a rhythm that flung perfectly balanced phrases at the far end of a union hall or Senate chamber.

But in private – or for the occasional all-important television interview – the other Kennedy showed up. That Kennedy could slip into a tangle of partial sentences, ums, and ahs, leaving listeners confused.

His rhetoric has, at the best times, won him admirers on both sides of the aisle as a straight and forceful speaker. At the worst, it cost him dearly in his bid for the presidency. But it was one of the quirks that defined him as a Kennedy to those that knew him best.

“Even his very best friends have noted for years that his method of speaking is a kind of shorthand in which, like other members of the Kennedy clan, they seem to understand each other very well but nobody else does,” says Edward Klein, who wrote the 2009 biography, “Ted Kennedy: The Dream that Never Died.”

Union lobbyist and friend of 40 years Bobby Juliano describes Kennedy as “a magnificent orator, but sometimes when chatting he can become a little bit wandering.”

To Mr. Juliano, it was a sign “of a very fertile mind.” But to some outsiders, the half-sentences and pauses fueled whispers that Kennedy was not as impressive as the bright people he hired to work for him.

In his 2007 memoir, “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner,” one of Kennedy’s speech writers, Robert Shrum describes a particularly damaging television interview with CBS correspondent Roger Mudd early in the 1980 presidential campaign.

Asked why he wanted to be president, “Kennedy lapsed into a shorthand of half-sentences, pauses, and a halting list of issues,” Mr. Shrum wrote. “He sometimes talked – and still talks – that way. So did JFK and RFK.”

Indeed, Kennedy’s explanation was that “he’d gotten used to it growing up; there were sessions around a crowded dinner table where you had to resort to that kind of verbal shorthand to get a word in edgewise,” Shrum added. “But even if his two brothers had their own moments of broken syntax, that wasn’t how the country remembered them.”

Yet Kennedy will be remembered for inspired words, as well, and three speeches, in particular.

A brother’s eulogy

First, he spoke his brother’s words at his brother’s funeral, remembering Robert Kennedy with words that Robert spoke to a young audience in South Africa in 1966. Ted was the last of the four Kennedy brothers, and the words fit the occasion.

“Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty…. Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control,” he said at Robert’s funeral, closing the eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York with Robert’s signature line: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”