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Remembering Ted Kennedy’s Faith, Friendships and Persona

August 26, 2009 at 6:27 PM EDT
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A journalist, clergyman and congressman who were close to Sen. Ted Kennedy reflect on his personality, faith and friendships.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get some personal reflections now from people who knew Edward Kennedy well.

Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, worked closely with Kennedy on civil rights legislation. He joins us from Atlanta. Tom Oliphant covered Kennedy for the Boston Globe for four decades. And Father Gerry Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia, a longtime family friend, Father Creedon will be one of the celebrants at the senator’s funeral mass on Saturday.

Thank you all for being with us.

Father Creedon, to you first. What drove Ted Kennedy?

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: Well, I believe he had a passion for peace, for justice, and I think underneath that was a deep conviction about values, about faith. And I think that, in some ways, the whole history of Ireland is written into some of his history and his values, a search for freedom, a search for a better life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that?

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: Well, I first met him going to church on a Sunday at St. Luke’s in McLean, and I would preach on topics like peace and justice, particularly peace.

And while the congregation sometimes disagreed, or slept, I’d meet Ted after mass, and he’d continue to talk about the theme I was talking about, backing up the principles of Catholic social teaching, the gospel that I was addressing, with specifics, with statistics. He was somebody who was engaged and engaged in those values, especially about peace.

And I remember the way he came out about Iraq in a prophetic way at the beginning of that press conference he invited me to that morning. And I could see the passion behind him with regard to peace, justice, nonviolence.

Champion for justice

Rep. John Lewis
D, Ga.
He was a champion for justice, for civil rights, for voting rights. And I think it was part of his makeup, part of his DNA to get out there, to speak up, and to speak out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Lewis, what do you remember the most about? What was the connection you had with Senator Kennedy?

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-Ga.: Well, I got to know Senator Kennedy right after he came to the Senate. You know, I had met his brother, President Kennedy, and his brother, Robert Kennedy, during the time he served as attorney general.

And I got to know the senator very well, because, as the father said, he was a champion for justice, for civil rights, for voting rights. And I think it was part of his makeup, part of his DNA to get out there, to speak up, and to speak out.

And he would call me from time to time and say, "John, we're going to do it. We're going to push and pull together, and we're not going to give up until we get the civil right bill passed," or we get the Voting Rights Act passed, and then we came to extend the Voting Rights Act. He was there.

And, you know, I will never forget on one occasion, Judy, when the Senate voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006, he invited me to be his guest on the Senate floor. And after the Senate passed the vote, he invited me into a little room off the Senate floor and showed me the desk where President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

And he had a picture made. And a few days later, he sent me a letter and a copy of that photograph and signed it. And I will cherish that forever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm going to interrupt you and bring in Tom Oliphant, because you -- we just heard John Lewis talk about the spirit, and yet his was a life full of tragedy, his own family, his brothers. How did he push through that?

TOM OLIPHANT: His own family. Well, you know, one of the aspects of Senator Kennedy that I think has been least discussed in his lifetime and about which people knew the least was just alluded to by the father, and that was his faith.

I mean, he did not always have the best of relations with Catholic officialdom because of his personal life and also some of the issues that he championed, but he was a devout believer. I wish I had a dollar for every mass I've been to with him on the road when there was, like, nobody else except a driver.

And I remember one occasion. It was getting toward the 20th anniversary of President Kennedy's murder. And he was making a national tour. And rather than talking about President Kennedy, he was talking about poverty.

And he broke off one morning -- I'm pretty sure it was in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Catholic town -- and went to a mass in the middle of the week. And afterwards, I -- you know, we all know about his father saying you have the obligation. We all know the secular call to service.

But I asked him, "Where does this rabid concern about poverty come from?" And he looked at me like I was from Mars. And he said, "Have you never read the New Testament?"

And that was behind so much of his politics, but he was the kind of politician who would not bring it up. There was nothing evangelical about his political behavior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: About his own faith.

TOM OLIPHANT: It was there. And now I think people -- it's easier to feel free talking about it.

Overcoming obstacles

Tom Oliphant
Former Boston Globe Columnist
Part of the Kennedy nature is to be absolutely brutally realistic about what you face, how high the hill is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Father Creedon, I keep coming back to this question of so much disappointment. He wanted to be president; he didn't make it. Two brothers assassinated. So much tragedy in his own family. What was it about him that pushed through that and gave him that spirit that John Lewis...

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: Well, I'd summarize it by the word "generosity." I remember celebrating mass in his home while he was ill in his illness with cancer around the parlor table. And whenever we'd come to the petitions, the prayers of the faithful, he never made a petition. He expressed thanks, gratitude. And I thought...

JUDY WOODRUFF: He never asked for anything. Is that what you're saying?

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: Never asked for anything for himself, but was thankful for what he saw around him. And to have an attitude of gratitude, given his own circumstance, I thought was extraordinary.

He was a generous man. He overcame obstacles. He forgave enemies. He didn't hold a grudge. He was generous with us in the church. He understood that we needed to have a commitment to the sanctity of human life. And he in his own way, in a thousand different ways, gave witness to that value.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Lewis, Congressman Lewis, what allowed him to reach across the aisle and to work with Republicans in a way that many of your fellow Democrats haven't done? What was that all about?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I think his make-up, and I think it had a great deal to do with his faith. He did. He lived the gospel. He just didn't talk about it. He didn't just preach a good sermon; he lived it.

Father, you're so right. He had the capacity to share, to give, and he felt that he was so blessed, and that he had a moral obligation. You would hear him say over and over again that we have a moral obligation to do certain things. It's the right thing to do; it's the just thing to do. And he did it with passion.

And he inspired all of us -- there was no one like Senator Kennedy. And, Judy, I don't think we're going to be so lucky or so blessed to see his likeness again anytime soon.

TOM OLIPHANT: Congressman Lewis is alluding to one of the most important examples of which you're asking about, and that's the extension of the Voting Rights Act in the early '80s. Kennedy always had -- you know, part of the Kennedy nature is to be absolutely brutally realistic about what you face, how high the hill is.

Extending that act with Reagan as president, with a Republican Senate, and working control of the House floor at that moment, by the way, that's Mount Everest politically. And Kennedy always understood you can't do this without Republicans.

And here's where the faith, I think, really is at work, when he would go out and find them. And in this particular case, one of the Republicans he found was a guy named Bob Dole, and the result is something that could have survived a Reagan veto.

But it isn't, "Do you want a post office in your state?" Or, "How do I twist your arm?" He had this way of helping somebody get to the position where they could see what was involved. And doing that with people who were by nature conservative took a sort of evangelical spirit, even though he always shied away from any reference to God in his work.

'Joy in life'

Father Gerry Creedon
St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church
I'll remember his humor. I'll remember the joy he took in life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you going to remember about him?

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: I think I'll remember his humor. I'll remember the joy he took in life. He loved to tease. He loved to tease me. There was a fancy, a love of poetry, music. When someone sang, you'd better listen. He respected the song. He reported the singer.

And that's all part of that work of imagination, which, I think, is allied to faith, a willingness to see possibilities. And I remember particularly the last mass I had with him, and he talked about St. Finbarr, my home saint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When was this?

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: That was probably in March or April here in -- before he moved back to the cape. And he told his children, "Well, now, over these masses, we learned a lot about Finbarr." And they said, "Who's this Finbarr?" And he said, "Well, Bobby called his son Finbarr. And the father explained it to me. Father, you need to explain it."

And they said, "No, you tell us." So he told the story of Finbarr. He was the patron saint of the environment, rocks, rivers, had his hermitage in Gougane Barra, came to the village of Inshagillaigh (ph), my home place, the Church of St. Finbarr, the River Lee to Cork, the Cathedral of St. Finbarr, it washed -- the River Lee washed on the shores of the states, the fancy, the imagination.

And he said, "I don't know what we learned about the gospel. We learned about Finbarr."

FATHER GERRY CREEDON: That sense of fancy and love for poetry and legend, and I think that was all part of the magic that he could bridge gaps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Father Gerry Creedon, Tom Oliphant, Representative John Lewis, thank you, all three.