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Remembering Senator Ted Kennedy

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  • Remembering Senator Ted Kennedy

    Gregory Aftandilian


    Much has been written and said about the life of Senator Ted Kennedy
    since his death a short time ago. For me, his passing left me sad
    and reflective, for few people have touched me as profoundly as he
    did. I was fortunate to have worked for him for the entire year 1999
    as a foreign policy fellow, an experience that not only was rewarding
    on a professional level but which left a lasting impression on me as
    an example of how a person who wielded so much influence and power
    could also render so much kindness and compassion.

    Growing up in Massachusetts and being interested in history and
    politics naturally led me to take an interest in Ted Kennedy and his
    policies. So when an opportunity came knocking while I was a State
    Department analyst (I was selected as a Brookings Congressional fellow
    in late 1998 to spend the following year working on Capitol Hill),
    I gravitated to the Kennedy office. Luckily, I was chosen by Kennedy's
    senior staff to work as a fellow on foreign policy issues even before
    my colleagues in the fellowship program were able to obtain positions
    in other Congressional offices. I felt very fortunate to have landed
    such a plum assignment.

    My first encounter with the senator was, naturally enough, at an
    Irish cultural event at the Kennedy Center along the Potomac River in
    Washington. As a staffer, I was to hover around him as guests greeted
    him and to jot down notes if someone asked him to do a favor. Walking
    with him into the famous Center and seeing the large bust of his
    slain brother made the evening especially moving. Perhaps because the
    evening was also an ethnic event I chatted with him about the Armenian
    community in Massachusetts as I walked him to his car. I knew that a
    few years earlier he had hosted a wonderful reception for Catholicos
    Karekin I at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where the two
    leaders got along famously, and I told him the sad news as suffering
    from cancer. Upon hearing this, Kennedy stopped in his tracks and
    told me to draft a get-well note from him to the Catholicos the first
    thing in the morning. Later that year, when the Catholicos succumbed
    to cancer, Kennedy asked me to draft a statement on his behalf for
    the Congressional Record in tribute to the life of Karekin I.

    These early encounters impressed upon me not only the senator's
    compassion but also his close ties to the Armenian community. That
    April, he spoke at the Armenian Genocide commemorative event on
    Capitol Hill and I was proud to have drafted his speech, which was
    later placed in the Congressional Record, and to have accompanied
    him to the event. However, on the ride over from the Senate to the
    House side, where the event was taking place, I saw that Kennedy,
    much to my chagrin, was not going over my draft, but seemed to be
    thinking about something else. Only later did I realize that he
    was collecting his thoughts before arriving at the event. There, he
    spoke from his heart and delivered a hard-hitting and moving speech,
    much better than I could have ever composed. That same month, Kennedy
    also received in his office the then president of Armenia, Robert
    Kocharian, another memorable event. Kennedy opened the conversation
    with Kocharian by saying how his family and the Armenian people have
    had a long and enduring friendship, going back many decades. Later that
    year, I discovered that President John F. Kennedy, while a freshman
    at Harvard in the 1930s, had tutored a poor Armenian-American teenager
    in Cambridge, helped him graduate from high school, and kept in touch
    with him until his own tragic death in 1963. When I wrote an article
    about this story, based on an interview I conducted with the widow of
    the person who was tutored, Senator Kennedy was so moved by it that he
    directed me to send it to his sisters and his niece, Caroline Kennedy,
    and to the archives of the John F. Kennedy Library.

    His commitment to the Armenian people extended to the political
    battle over Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which restricted
    U.S. aid to Azerbaijan because of its blockade of Armenia. In 1999,
    Kennedy went down to the Senate floor and took part in the debate
    to preserve Section 907 when opponents of Armenia were seeking its
    removal. It was typical of him to tell me that fellow supporters of
    Armenia, like himself, would prevail in the fight when the outcome
    of that vote initially looked uncertain. His participation in that
    debate helped keep Section 907 unchanged over the next two years.

    Outside of working on Armenian issues for the senator, I worked closely
    with his foreign policy advisor on various topics and together we
    briefed Kennedy for his meetings with a number of world leaders,
    including Egyptian President Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah, Irish
    Prime Minister Ahern and Georgian President Shevardnadze. Kennedy
    always went out of his way to introduce me to these leaders, even
    though aides usually operate in the background. It was this personal
    touch of his that I always found so thoughtful and caring. When my
    son was born that year, Kennedy sent him a "warm Irish welcome" note
    that our family has treasured, as we have an inscribed print of one
    of his Cape Cod paintings.

    As my fellowship was sadly coming to an end in late 1999, I heard of
    an opening on the st ittee and applied for it. Kennedy was legendary
    for being helpful to his staffers in their career pursuits and he
    did the same for me. If it were not for his personal intervention,
    I would not have gotten the job, as competition for such positions
    was extremely stiff. Seven years later, Kennedy and his staff were
    again instrumental in helping me obtain an international security
    affairs fellowship at Harvard.

    Even after I left his office, Kennedy would always treat me with the
    same warmth and kindness as he did when I worked for him. When I would
    run into him in the corridors of the Senate, he would pat me on the
    back and ask me how I was doing. He took a genuine interest in all
    of his former staffers and would invite them to his annual Christmas
    parties where, after performing a hilarious skit in costume with his
    wife Vickie and making fun of himself, he would then move around the
    room to greet everyone personally.

    Ted Kennedy never forgot his Irish ethnic roots and even though he
    grew up in wealth and privilege, he understood, probably based on his
    family's background, that life was unfair at times, discrimination
    was a scourge that had to be defeated, and that public service meant
    championing the rights of all people. He worked assiduously and
    successfully for immigration reform early in his career, overturning
    laws that discriminated against people from outside of Northern
    and Western Europe. Thousands of ethnic families today, including
    Armenian-American ones, owe their existence and opportunity in America
    to Kennedy's immigration reform efforts. He similarly championed
    healthcare reform, believing that no American family should be denied
    health coverage for a loved one in need of care. And he championed
    human rights around the world, believing that basic freedoms of free
    speech and assembly should not be denied.

    It was this compassion, both at the personal level and in the national
    and international arenas, that endeared him to so many people,
    including me. I was fortunate to have known him, even for a re always
    be grateful for his friendship and the lessons he taught me.