“We’d like to have somebody on the story who was actually alive for much of his career.” This was the line I heard from a manager Wednesday morning. It was intended as flattery for an old guy who’d already had children by the time the Cold War ended.
The story was about Teddy Kennedy, and WXIA’s local coverage of his death. During the morning editorial meeting, the obvious names came up: Lowery, Lewis, Young, Carter, King. A few not-so-obvious ones also emerged. I would assemble a reaction package with remarks from civil rights icons.
As an afterthought, I said: Yeah, I talked to Kennedy a few times.
This was met with greater wide-eyed wonder than I’d expected. You interviewed him? Well, of course. You should do the story. And afterward, you can do a brief on-camera talkback about your experiences with Kennedy.
Right. Ted Kennedy didn’t know me from Adam. But as a reporter in Washington in 1985, I covered news for local TV in Boston (among other cities). So my bureau paid attention to Kennedy.
Once, I’d intercepted him with a camera outside the Senate chamber and provoked an utterance on something-or-other. I had, perhaps, one follow-up question. He kept walking.
The second time was more interesting. We’d made an appointment to talk to him in “the swamp,” a grassy area outside the Capitol.
Kennedy emerged. He walked rapidly to our position. Still in my 20s, I was a bit awestruck and struggled to hide it. He began chattering about the legislation at hand, with detail that was well beyond my knowledge. We mic’d him. He kept chattering. In his hand was a half-smoked cigar. Around his mouth, one could see dried brown remnants of the cigar he’d so obviously enjoyed. The Senator’s hair was disheveled. There were white flecks on the shoulders of his dark suit.
In other words, he was — shall we say — untidy.
This was my snapshot of a legend: Tobacco stained and dandruff flecked.
It was a searing image, and likely a wholly unfair one. It was late afternoon. The guy had spent the day in the cloakrooms of the Senate, twisting arms and working legislative magic. This was just another workday for a guy who, by all accounts, worked harder than most.
Lord knows how often I’ve appeared in public, the on-scene face of a TV station, drenched to the knot of my tie in flopsweat. In public places, my wife delights in wiping stuff, real and imagined, from my face. I have no room to talk. I consider myself a fairly well-groomed man. I’m sure Kennedy did too.
(I also encountered Kennedy a third time in Hancock County, Georgia in the late eighties, when he was on a tour exploring health care in rural areas. He seemed perfectly groomed on that occasion. Believe me, I noticed.)
Fast forward to August 26, 2009. I had to come up with something to say about my personal encounters with Ted Kennedy. I had very little material that was appropriate for the occasion. Thankfully, I only had thirty seconds.