Ex-Denverite’s ‘Kennedy Legacy’ opens at 2008 Dem convention

“The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled,” by Vincent Bzdek, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009

Vincent Bzdek’s Colorado creds are 24-carat. He grew up in Denver, where he went to school through his sophomore year at Regis High School. Then his family moved to Brush, where his parents published The Brush News-Tribune.

“I worked there in high school, doing everything from taking portraits of kids with their pigs, to running the press, to sweeping the floors. So The Trib was really my first professional journalism job,” said Bzdek, who graduated from Brush High School, “home of the Beetdiggers.”

Bzdek earned his bachelor’s degree at Colorado College in Colorado Springs in 1982.

That Colorado background shows clearly in the book, which begins with a prologue called “The Last Hurrah,” a moving account of Ted Kennedy’s struggles with kidney stones at University Hospital during the hours leading up to his final public speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver — a year to the day, it turns out, before Kennedy died.

Bzdek, who is also the author of “Woman of the House: The Rise of Nancy Pelosi,” Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, further polished his journalistic skills at The Colorado College Catalyst, The Colorado Springs Sun and The Denver Post, rising to deputy managing editor before heading out in 1998 to start his career as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, which still employs him.

During his four years at CC, Bzdek says, his political science professor, Tom Cronin, inspired him to take an idealistic, “big-hearted approach to politics.”

Vincent Bzdek’s book, “The Kennedy Legacy.”

Bzdek gives the penultimate — and warmest — acknowledgement in “The Kennedy Legacy,” to Cronin.

“Finally,” he writes, “I’d like to make a special mention of Tom Cronin, presidential scholar, author of many books on politics, and former Ted Kennedy delegate, and one of my most treasured undergraduate professors. Tom’s inspiring talks about the inherent nobility of public service are really the founding fathers of this book. My hope is that Tom’s optimistic spirit — Kennedyesque in the best sense of the word — can be found lodged in every page of this book.”

And it can be. This book will be loved by anyone who recorded 10 hours of CNN on the day of the Kennedy funeral and gets teary-eyed watching it.

His book devotes 253 pages to examining the legacy of John, Robert and Ted Kennedy. But at a 90-minute book-signing at the East Colfax Tattered Cover last summer, Bzdek summarized what he believes are the major components of the Kennedy family’s legacy to the United States:

• Giving nobility to public service.

Bzdek recalled a former Peace Corps volunteer he interviewed in the course of researching the book.

“I’d never done anything patriotic or unselfish for my country because nobody asked, and the Kennedys asked,” he quoted her saying, noting that, “Ted has nurtured that legacy for 50 years,” most recently by pushing the Ted Kennedy Serve America Act.

“In a nutshell, that’s one of their most lasting legacies,” Bzdek said.

• Support for the expansion of civil rights, both in the United States and internationally.

“John thought immigration quotas favoring northern Europeans were unjust. He never got the chance to get them changed, but Ted did. Because of Ted, you literally see a different mix of races in this country,” Bzdek said.

He also said Robert Kennedy played a large role in ending apartheid in South Africa by delivering his “Ripples of Hope” speech there in the late ’60s. In the speech, which became famous in South Africa, Robert Kennedy said one person who takes a moral stand can make a worldwide difference by encouraging moral action by others. RFK followed through with a tour of the country where he shook hands with black people, which was illegal at the time.

Ted Kennedy, he noted, went to South Africa 19 years later with a TV crew, then came back to the United States to show Americans what apartheid looked like.

“He introduced a bill to start sanctions against South Africa and within three years, because of that bill, apartheid came down,” Bzdek said.

• An astonishing legislative legacy.

When both his brothers were assassinated, Ted Kennedy became the unlikely heir to the entire Kennedy family legacy.

“He was considered the black sheep of the family,” Bzdek told the group gathered at the Tattered Cover. “There were no expectations for him…. But I argue that Ted had the emotional intelligence that made a great politician. He has sponsored 2,500 bills, working with Strom Thurmond, for example, to revise sentencing guidelines.

“He tried to complete his brothers’ dreams, and the culmination of that was the election of Barack Obama.

“It’s hard (after Chappaquiddick) to call Ted a hero, but look at what he’s done, much of it behind the scenes. He has accomplished much more than many presidents.

“I started this project thinking that Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy were the great ones. But it might have been Ted who was the greatest.”

We caught up with Bzdek shortly after Ted Kennedy’s death and asked whether anything about the public reaction had surprised him.

This was his e-mail response:

The thing that most surprised me about the reaction to Ted’s death was how intimate many of the tributes to him were. In Boston, especially, people expressed an appreciation for Ted, the person, rather than Ted, the politician, or Ted, the keeper of the Kennedy flame. The tributes were for a single man, not a mystique, despite his flaws.

“He took care of the sick and the poor,” the Rev. Jack Ahearn told me. “He’s done something for all of us at one time or another.”

I wasn’t sure if large crowds would gather like they had for his brothers, John and Bobby, after their premature deaths. Only a few hundred people had assembled at JFK Library before his procession arrived late in the afternoon on Aug. 28. But once his family and his coffin got there, tens of thousands of people suddenly materialized. Busload after busload came in a steady stream, mourners filing out into a miles-long line snaking through the parking lot.

There was a recognition among the people I spoke to there that Ted’s imperfections — his humanity — gave him a greater tolerance for the imperfections of others.

“Seems like because of the tragedies in his own life, he could relate to the tragedy in other people’s lives,” Jill Grossberg told me. She spent her 42nd anniversary in line to pay her last respects.

— Janet@coloradostatesman.com

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