persons, places and things: Judging the Kennedys

Barb Arland-Fye

By Barb Arland-Fye

My Grandma Arland was a big fan of the Kennedy family which, like hers, was Irish-American and Catholic.

She and Rose Kennedy, the matriarch, would have been fairly close in age. I developed Grandma Arland’s admiration for the Kennedy family and devoured magazine stories she collected about them. Caroline Kennedy, the late President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, was just a half-year older than me.

Everything I read as a young girl led me to believe the Kennedy brothers — John, Robert and Ted —  were committed to the well-being of our country and to ensuring justice for all. I wondered what kind of president Robert Kennedy would have been had he not been assassinated. I wondered whether Ted might make a good president.

But at some point in early adulthood, I read about the flaws of the brothers and became disillusioned. How could these heroes of my childhood have let me down?


When Ted Kennedy failed in his only bid for president in 1980, I was a college senior who felt no sympathy at his loss. I could only think of him as a selfish person who had pulled himself out of a submerged car years before while leaving a woman behind to die.

In the early 1990s, his ratings were among the lowest in Congress and he deserved it, I thought, for his personal failings and support of abortion rights. He issued a public apology for his personal failings, but that made no difference to me. Over time, though, he emerged as a dedicated senator and statesman who championed the rights of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin noted at Kennedy’s passing late last month, “I worked side-by-side with him to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and will never forget his compassion for individuals with disabilities …”

That means a lot to me as a mother whose firstborn son has a disability.  I also appreciate the fact that Ted Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver — who died two weeks before him — founded Special Olympics.

But Ted Kennedy’s failings still overshadowed the good he had done, in my mind.

Later, while assisting with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in my parish, I got involved in a discussion about God’s judgment of human beings. How would God judge the cruelest, most evil dictators, mass murderers and other infamous sinners? We decided we were making judgments based on our human nature and couldn’t possibly know how God passes judgment until we stand before him ourselves.

Matthew 7:1-2 says, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”

Now I understand the accolades Ted Kennedy is receiving for the causes he championed — the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Family Medical Leave Act among them — without ignoring his failings. He owned up to them as well.

According to Catholic News Service, Ted Kennedy wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI in which he said, “I have been blessed to be a part of a wonderful family, and both of my parents, particularly my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives. That gift of faith has sustained, nurtured and provided solace to me in the darkest hours. I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path.”

I do admire Ted Kennedy for owning up to his faults and striving through faith to do better.

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