CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Edward Moore Kennedy, the senior U.S. senator who struggled through Harvard his first time through, returned to his alma mater Monday afternoon for a convocation all his own, to receive a Doctor of Laws earned through his relentless championing, in 46 years in the Senate, of the weak and the poor and the sick.
“I’m proud to be here for him today,” said John Patti, who works for the Harvard Facilities Maintenance Organization. “He’s a very sincere, honest person. He’s there for the people. We like him.” Patti was on duty, outside of Sanders Theatre, filled with 1,600 of the 8,000 people who had sought tickets to the event.
The sentiment was the same downstairs, by the dining hall. “When I think of Kennedy, I think of Massachusetts. I think of good things.” said Kerry Maiato, a dining hall worker on a break, watching Portuguese soccer on television. “I think of a leader,” said Rui Silva, his colleague.
Harvard has held only 13 one-man, one-degree ceremonies. The most recent was September 18, 1998, for the South African President Nelson Mandela. The first, to which Senator Kennedy referred in his remarks, was April 3, 1776.
“Now I have something in common with George Washington -- other than being born on February 22,” Senator Kennedy said after receiving his degree. “It is not, as I had once hoped, being President. It is instead this rare privilege of receiving an honorary degree from Harvard at a special convocation.” Harvard held the special ceremony because Kennedy, stricken with brain cancer, had been unable to attend commencement last spring.
This afternoon, with a trumpet fanfare, Kennedy entered and walked slowly across the stage to the first of many standing ovations. He handed his silver-handled cane to his wife as he sat. Kennedy left his cane behind when he walked across the stage to embrace the cellist and Harvard alumnus Yo Yo Ma and shake the hand of the current Harvard student and pianist, Charlie Albright, who had played two Gershwin preludes. He left the cane behind when he walked to receive his degree and address the crowd himself.
After a prayer from the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's chaplain, James Onstad, Harvard ’09, sang an a capella rendition of “America the Beautiful.” The audience was invited to sing the fourth verse. Senator Kennedy gently mouthed all the words. Harvard granted Vice President-elect Joe Biden a decent seat in the audience, across an aisle from his colleagues, Sens. John F. Kerry Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd. Jeanne Shaheen, U.S. senator-elect from New Hampshire, was there, with Nikki Tsongas and Barney Frank from Congress.
I went to cheer for the College Cost Reduction and Affordability Act of 2007, yet another of the
accomplishments for which Senator Kennedy sought no fanfare. And which, I fear, we, the people, take for granted as just something Senator Kennedy does.
My day began when I arrived in the parking lot of Bunker Hill Community College for the 7 a.m. class I teach there. The parking lot is almost empty then. As usual, an old sedan from Massachusetts and another from New Hampshire were already there. As usual, I parked a few spaces away to grant some privacy to the students asleep in the cars. Without Senator Kennedy’s lifetime of work, I wonder if those two would be able to be in school at all. I despair for my students as I pray for Senator Kennedy’s health. No one in the U.S. Senate comes close to Kennedy’s compassion for students who are poor, never mind his legislative skills.
In plain speaking, for the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act, Kennedy, first, took $20 billion over five years away from line items that sent the money to banks and financial institutions as loan subsidies and fees. That’s not a typo. From banks. Kennedy took $20 billion headed to banks, with all their lobbyists, campaign donations and influence, and sent the money instead directly to poor students as increased grants and less expensive loans. Shifting billions from the powerful to the poor is not supposed to be possible in Washington today.
“Senator Kennedy realized that student loan defaults most affected lower-income students. He knows how to get things done. He, more than any other elected official, is responsible for the size and shape of federal education policy as it exists today,” Terry W. Hartle, a Kennedy education staffer from 1986 to 1993 and now senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, told me by phone Monday morning. “Senator Kennedy has been a leader in every educational piece of legislation since the 1963 Vocational Education Act.”
The question I can’t shake is how Senator Kennedy became such a champion for the people he called, in his remarks, “the ones who need your help the most.”
I kept asking.
“He grew up in pretty comfortable surroundings, but he does not let that get in the way of helping people,” said Julia Mario, a graduate of the College of New Jersey, and a member of the Harvard events staff.
“He’s an expert in the politics of helping,” said Paolo Cueva, a 2007 Harvard government major who was on the events staff because she couldn’t get a ticket to the event. “I worked in the Senator’s Boston Office. He changed my life. When I went to work there, I thought I was going to find politics and backstabbing and all that. Everyone in the office is friends. Everyone loves to get there in the morning and no one wants to leave. Everyone works their butts off. When we got the message that he was sick, he just gave the word that we should keep on working. It’s the politics of caring.”
Colleen Richards Powell, another former Kennedy staffer there, told me, “He’s about hope and possibility and resilience.”
Before the ceremony I asked the question of Caroline Kennedy, the senator’s niece. “It’s just part of who he is,” she said.
Senator Kennedy, ending his remarks to another standing ovation, reminded me that how Kennedy became a champion of the poor is not the point. I’m glad, for my students, that he is that champion. “I have lived a blessed time,” he said. “Now, with you, I look forward to a new time of aspiration and high achievement for our nation and the world.”