The Ted Kennedy I knew

Michael Dannenberg was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's senior education counsel from 2000 through 2005. He is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute.

Soon after my former roommate was killed in Iraq, Sen. Ted Kennedy called me. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I wasn’t pleased to get the call. I was on the senator’s staff at the time, and he sometimes called on weekends with policy questions, usually about education funding. The calls usually required some quick fact-checking at the least, and sometimes a trip into the office.

That weekend, a little over a year into the Iraq war, I wasn’t in Washington. I wasn’t thinking about work, and I was in no mood to talk policy. I was mindlessly walking through a Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York, thinking about my old roommate. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. In fact, for much of the next two years I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

Fern Holland, originally of Miami, Okla., was the first American civilian killed in Iraq. She was building women’s centers there and organizing Iraqi women in support of democratic rights. Her death got heaps of news coverage at the time. And even after the coverage slowed, there were lots of reminders. In 2004, you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on a television without hearing about Iraq. I don’t know that a mourning period ever ends, but the incessant Iraq war coverage worsened it for me.


When I saw on my caller ID that it was Kennedy on the line, I cursed to my girlfriend (now my wife): “It’s Kennedy. He wants something.” But he didn’t. The senator was calling to say that he was thinking about me, and about Fern. He said she was a patriot; that he admired what she was trying to do; and that he had said a prayer for each of us in church that day. He said he knew from his own experience that as bad as the first weeks are after someone passes, the weeks and months that follow can be even harder. After the outpouring of sympathy -- and in our case, news coverage -- passes, you’re alone in grief. The world moves on. You don’t. He called to say I wasn’t alone.

I later learned that the senator made similar calls to every family in Massachusetts who lost someone in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two of the planes involved that day took off from Boston’s Logan Airport and were filled with Massachusetts passengers. Kennedy called each family, many of them multiple times, staying on the phone for up to 30 minutes. He cried with the survivors and shared his personal experiences in dealing with tragedy. There was never any media coverage of those calls. I didn’t find out about them until years after they began, and I worked for the man. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made thousands of condolence calls over the course of his life.

For the next several weeks, we’ll memorialize the work of the U.S. Senate’s greatest legislator since Henry Clay -- maybe ever. Kennedy was a sponsor of every civil rights law since 1964. He brought us children’s health insurance, and he was the force behind the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote; student loans; education aid for the poor; federal support for Meals on Wheels; and countless other domestic policies. We’ll read and hear the words of one of the nation’s greatest champions of the young, sick, needy and elderly. We’ll see his image and his brothers’ images repeatedly as icons of American history and liberalism. Those of us who share his mission to build a more just and decent society will worry that he cannot be replaced.

But many of us also will be mourning more than a legislator, more than a champion, more than an icon. We’ll mourn a man who reached out when it mattered most, who let us know we weren’t alone. And we’re still not.