For Massachusetts mourners, Kennedy was 'one of their own'

The long line of Bay Staters waiting to pay their last respects to the senator Thursday was evidence of the intimate and powerful connection he had with his home state.

Adam Hunger/ Reuters
Members of the public line up to pay their respects to Sen. Edward Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston on Thursday.

The mourners had supported his brother for president, shook his hand, or heard him speak. They called him Teddy, and felt he was a friend and trusted ally, even if they never met him.

To brave the mid-August sun and the crowds that built as the day wore on was the least they could do for a man who gave so much, they said.

The motorcade carrying Edward Kennedy’s body arrived here at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Thursday afternoon, passing from his beloved Cape Cod home to Boston on a pre-planned route where thousands of Bay Staters lined the roads.

That Massachusetts loved its senior senator was evident long before his passing Tuesday. It was obvious every six years. Senator Kennedy won eight elections in total, six with more than 60 percent of the vote. Two of those times, he took more than 70 percent.

Only two men – Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd – have held seats in the United States Senate longer.

Mourners here – both Massachusetts natives and visitors from as far afield as Florida – felt the weight of that service.

“I had a long history with the Kennedys,” said Maryann of Rockport, Mass.

She says she cast her first presidential ballot for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and, though she didn’t know the Kennedys personally, they impacted her life again and again. She joined President Kennedy’s Peace Corps and served for eight years.

“Ted Kennedy gave so much of his life that just being here is showing respect for him,” she adds.

Even in his toughest election, in 1994 against Republican Mitt Romney, who would later go on to be governor of Massachusetts and an unsuccessful candidate for president, Kennedy won with 58 percent of the vote.

“That was the one election where he had to work up a sweat,” says Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Kennedy’s appeal to Massachusetts voters was his “common touch,” says Mr. Stewart. “If you take a national view of Kennedys, you miss a really important thing about him, which is that voters in Massachusetts saw him as one of their own.”

That bond benefited Kennedy through personal scandals that might have derailed other politicians.

“Even in the years where it was obvious that his personal life was off the wheels a bit, voters were willing to overlook that and had empathy for him,” Stewart adds.

“It took him a long time after Chappaquiddick to get back to the numbers he enjoyed before,” says David Lublin, professor of government at American University, referring to the night in 1969 that Kennedy lost control of his car on a Martha’s Vineyard bridge, which resulted in the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy was widely criticized for leaving the scene of the accident and waiting to call the police.

But that’s not mentioned here today. Instead, Kennedy is praised for his service to poor and minority communities, for his work in healthcare reform, and for the disabled.

“He stayed with us in our worst hours,” says Brian Hart, who lost his son, John, in Iraq in 2003. Kennedy helped him send armor and equipment to the soldiers his son left behind.

Mr. Hart first met Kennedy during his son’s funeral at Arlington National Ceremony, where Kennedy will also be buried.

“We’ll see him there again, I suppose,” Hart said.

But for now, he’s come here to honor him.

“Today is his hour.”

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