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Transcript: Kerry Speaks At Kennedy Memorial

This article is more than 11 years old.

Sen. John Kerry, now the senior senator from Massachusetts, spoke this evening at the Celebration of Life Memorial Service for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Below is the text of his speech as prepared for delivery:

Sen. John Kerry pays tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during the Celebration of Life Memorial Service at the Kennedy Library on Friday. (AP)
Sen. John Kerry pays tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during the Celebration of Life Memorial Service at the Kennedy Library on Friday. (AP)

From the moment of fateful diagnosis fourteen months ago until he left us, we saw grace and courage, dignity and humility, joy and laughter – and so much love and gratitude lived out on a daily basis that our cup does run over. How devastating the prognosis was as Ted, smiling and waving, left Mass General Hospital in June a year ago. That he lived the next fourteen months in the way he did, optimistic, full of hope, is part miracle, yes, but it is equally a triumph of the love and care that Vicki, their children and all who cherished him gave in such abundance. This time was a special gift; the last months of his battle were in some ways the sweetest of seasons because he saw how much we love him, how much we respect him, and how grateful we are for his stunning years of service and friendship.

And what a year he had! He accomplished more in that span than many Senators do in a lifetime: Mental Health Parity, the Tobacco bill, a health care bill out of his Committee. He spoke at the Democratic Convention, wrote his memoirs, was there for the signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, received the Medal of Freedom from the President and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.

One of the most poignant moments was the evening he was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard. His staff through the years was gathered in the front, friends, family and admirers filled the audience, Vice President-elect Biden was there. You have no idea how hard Ted practiced to pull off these public appearances – to make the speech live up to his own high standards. He took the stage at Harvard. For a few moments we all worried that it would be difficult to pull off and then, before you knew it, the pace picked up, his voice soared, and he inspired us again with a stunning restatement of his purpose in public life. When it was over the applause never wanted to end. He stayed on the stage reaching out and we wanted him to be there forever.

I first met Ted Kennedy when I was 18 years old as a volunteer for his first Senate campaign in the summer before I went to college. Then I met him again when I returned from Vietnam and we veterans were encamped on the mall. It was Ted Kennedy who had the courage to come down to the mall one night and sit in a tent and listen to us talk about Vietnam. We were controversial, but Ted broke the barriers and other Senators followed.

He worked his heart out for me in the Presidential campaign of 2004—and he made the difference in Iowa. When we were down in the polls and I was slugging it out there, Ted brought his humor, his energy and his eloquence to Davenport to melt the snows for me. There we were, just two weeks before the Caucuses, and his voice boomed out: “You voted for my brother! You voted for my other brother! You didn’t vote for me!” As the crowd roared with laughter, Ted bellowed: “But we’re back here for John Kerry. And if you vote for John Kerry, I’ll forgive you! You can have three out of four … and I’m going to love Iowa. I’m going to love you.” And they loved him!

We had a lot of fun there. He’d open an event saying: “I want to talk to you about a bold, handsome, intelligent leader, a man who should not only be President, but should end up on Mount Rushmore. But enough talk about me. Let’s talk about John.”

After that agonizing Tuesday night in November when we fell so short in one state, there were Ted and Vicki, on Wednesday morning, sitting with Teresa and me in the kitchen in Boston as we prepared to concede. He was always there when you needed him.

And so were Sunny and Splash—even if you didn’t. Once when we were at a Senate retreat, Ted had just spoken and then Joe Biden got up to make a point. As Joe got more forceful in his argument he started to gesture and raise his voice and move slightly towards Ted. Boom – Sunny and splash were on their feet, barking wildly, defending Kennedy territory and we witnessed the first ever Biden rhetorical retreat!

One of my really favorite moments is Ted campaigning with my daughter Vanessa in New Mexico. They were visiting an Indian reservation and the Tribal Medicine man wanted to bestow a blessing. He took a feather and chanted as he asked Vanessa and Ted to stand side by side, extend their hands and bow their heads. With a sacred feather he touched their foreheads, touched their hands and their feet all the while chanting away. When he finished, Ted leaned over to Vanessa and whispered: “I think we just got married.”

A couple of months later she got a note from Teddy which said: “No matter what happens, we will always have New Mexico.”

One of the framed notes in Ted’s Senate office was a thank-you from a colleague for a gift – a special edition of “Profiles in Courage.” “I brought it home and re-read it. What an inspiration!” the note said. “Thank you, my friend, for your many courtesies. If the world only knew.” It was signed by Trent Lott, the Republican leader of the Senate.

Indeed, if everyone only knew…

When George Wallace was wounded in an assassination attempt, the first to visit him was Ted Kennedy. When Joe Biden underwent brain surgery for an aneurism, the first to board the train to Wilmington was Ted Kennedy.

When Jesse Helms announced he had to undergo heart-valve surgery, Helms told his constituents back in North Carolina: “It’s no piece of cake, but it sure beats listening to Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor.” So Ted wrote a note to Jesse, saying: “I would be happy to send you tapes of my recent Senate speeches, if that will help you to a speedy recovery!”

And just two weeks ago, when I was in the hospital after surgery, there was Ted Kennedy on the phone to find out how I was doing amidst all that he was dealing with.

In his life, Ted knew the dark night of loss, and his empathy was global—and deeply personal. After my father died of cancer just days before the Democratic convention in 2000, there was a knock at the door and standing there on the front porch was Ted Kennedy, dropping by to hug and talk and just sit with us in those hours.

For 25 years, I was privileged to work by his side, learning from the master. And over the years, I have received hundreds of handwritten notes from Ted, some funny, some touching, all of them special treasures now.

He thanked me for my gift of a Catholic study Bible, commenting, “My mother would be very grateful to you for keeping me in line!”

He thanked me for a particularly challenging charter lift home from Washington after 9/11 when it was tough to get clearance for a private plane. He wrote: “Here’s a riddle for you – what do you get when you make 3 calls to the FAA, 2 calls to the Secretary of Transportation and 3 calls to Signature Flight support? You get a great trip to Boston!”

And he thanked Teresa and me for the gift of a vintage bottle, concluding: “I just hope that I’ve aged as well as this wine!”

The personal touch Ted brought to life extended well beyond his Senate colleagues. It reflected the kind of man he was and the kind of laws he wrote.

For 1,000 days in the White House, John Kennedy inspired us. For 80 days on the presidential campaign trail, Robert Kennedy gave us reason to believe and hope again. And for more than 17,000 days in the United States Senate, Ted Kennedy changed the course of history as only few others ever have.

Without him, there might still be a military draft. The war in Vietnam might have lasted longer. There might have been delays in passing the Voting Rights Act or Medicare and Medicaid. Soviet Jewish refuseniks might have been ignored—and who would have been there to help them as Ted did? Without him we might not have stood up against the apartheid government in South Africa. The barriers to fair immigration might be higher.

If everyone only knew…

Without Ted, 18-year-olds might not be able to vote. There might not be a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Meals on Wheels, student loans, increases in the minimum wage, equal funding for women’s college sports, health insurance portability, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the first billions for AIDS research, workplace safety, Americorps, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

If everyone only knew…

He stood against judges who would turn back the clock on constitutional rights. He stood against the war in Iraq. For nearly four decades, and all through his final days, he labored with all his might to make health care a right for all Americans.

In these last months, every visit Ted made to the Senate elicited an unstoppable outpouring of affection. Tears welled up in the eyes of Republican and Democrat alike. Everyone missed his skills, his booming call to arms and conscience. On his last visit, Chris Dodd and I sat in the back row beside his desk and listened to Teddy regale us with an imitation of his efforts to practice throwing out a ball at the Red Sox opening game. He laughed and poked fun at how reluctant his hand and muscles were to obey his commands. I was in awe of this moment of humility and self deprecating humor in the face of real frustration. As he so often said over the years, we have to take issues seriously, but never take ourselves too seriously. He was a master of that too.

In the end his abiding gift was his incomparable love of life and his commitment to make better the life of the world. In between his time changing the world, he found time to capture it in marvelous paintings. He was a talented, gifted artist and, an incurable romantic. Who else would have thought to hide their engagement ring on a coral reef in Saint Croix so as they were swimming and diving Vicki would find it? It never occurred to him that the waters might have swept the ring away. But one thing is certain: their love endured from then until now, and it will endure forever.

Massachusetts has always had its own glorious love affair with the sea. Like his brothers before him, salt water was in his veins. Teddy lived by the sea and he lived joyously on it. The evening he passed away, I looked out at the ocean, where grey sky met grey water, no horizon; the sky almost seemed to be in mourning. It was not a time for sailing. But the next afternoon as I sat at his home, I looked out at a perfect Nantucket Sound and thought to myself with certainty: he's on a schooner now – he’s sailing-- Ted, Joe, Jack, and Bobby on the fore-deck, Kathleen, Pat, Eunice, and Rosemary trading stories with their parents. Ted at the helm—steering his steady course.

Sail on my friend. Sail on.

This program aired on August 28, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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