JANUARY 21, 2009 2:40PM

Ted Kennedy: A true friend of the wretched of the earth

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                    Barack Obama and Senator Ted Kennedy, February 2008


In breaking news, The Boston Globe reported that Senator Kennedy has been released from hospital where he was taken and spent the night after suffering a seizure at the post-inaugural luncheon for President Obama. He is reported to be "feeling well."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy has been my senator for over thirty years. Throughout that time he has been a ceaseless champion  for civil rights, social and economic justice, women's rights, gay rights, workers' rights, healthcare reform, immigration reform. As Time magazine said, he has  "amassed a titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country".

But perhaps what is less well known is that his commitment to these causes has not been limited to this country alone. It is his deep rooted values and commitment to the most marginalized, vulnerable, voiceless and poorest people in the rest of the world  - truly Frantz Fanon's wretched of the earth - that I want to highlight. Three examples will suffice.

Bangladeshi refugees 1971-1972

After the invasion of East Pakistan (also called East Bengal, now called Bangladesh) by West Pakistani forces in the spring of 1971, some 9,000,000 refugees streamed across the border into India. The world and the United States (Nixon/Kissinger mired in Vietnam, famously "tilting" toward West Pakistan) took little note. All except the  39 year old senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy.


In the brutal heat and monsoon muck of August, Senator Kennedy traveled to refugee camps throughout West Bengal (the neighboring Indian state) and reported back to the Senate in an extraordinarily passionate document (1) about the plight of the refugees in India and what he called the "reign of terror which grips East Bengal." 

He concluded: "America's heavy support of Islamabad (West Pakistan) is nothing short of complicity in the human and political tragedy of East Bengal." 

Kennedy not only bore witness, he jolted the world into taking notice and aiding the refugees if not the independence fighters in East Bengal.

Bangladesh gained its independence in December, 1971 after Pakistan was defeated in a short and brutally effective war by India. Senator Kennedy returned to India and now  Bangladesh in February, 1972. The United States had so far refused to recognize the new nation (see Kissinger's extraordinary memo). Kennedy called for its recognition. He was lionized in Dhaka, the capital, with cries of "Joi Kennedy" (Hail, or literally, Victory to Kennedy) as well as in Calcutta, India, when he revisited the refugee camps.

Senator Kennedy has remained a steadfast friend of Bangladesh and India. In fact,  there is a move to recognize him officially as a Bangladeshi hero, along with the late George Harrison, who had organized the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the archetype for such benefits in later years.

Ethiopian Famine 1984-1985

In 1984 Ethiopia was in the middle of multiple civil wars, which together with a failure of the rains caused one of the most severe famines in recent memory, one in which over a million people are believed to have perished.


In December, 1985 Ted Kennedy was one of the first U. S. officials to visit Ethiopia during the famine. Along with Jerry Tinker (see more about Jerry below) of his Senate staff, with him were his daughter Kara and son Teddy, traveling to what was decidedly not a vacation spot.

Directly as a result of  the Senator's efforts  and the publicity surrounding them, President Reagan asked for a $400 million increase in aid for Africa for 1985.  A later Senate report said that as a result "seven million people have been spared starvation by a remarkable success story of international relief."

The senator wrote movingly about his trip in the form of diary for People magazine:

I have visited two profoundly moving places in my life. At ground zero in Hiroshima in 1979 I resolved to do all I can to stop the nuclear arms race. Africa has been another ground zero—and I will never stop working to end hunger in the world.

One Iranian Jew

Not all of Senator Kennedy's efforts were on such a large canvas.  Susan Estrich (who was as much of a trail blazer as President Obama, being the first female editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review), then a Kennedy staffer, recounts a story of the 1980 Presidential primary campaign in New Jersey.

A woman asked him what his position was on helping Iranian Jews, such as her family, stranded under the Ayatollah Khomeini regime.  The senator did not have an answer handy, but promised that his staff would help. He nagged them incessantly, and Susan (and, of course, Jerry Tinker) did succeed in helping her. As Estrich writes:

It took a few months, long after the presidential campaign had ended and the Senator was no longer seeking the votes of people in New Jersey. (I don't think the woman was a citizen yet, anyway. She had just come to the event to ask the question.) But we got visas for that family. Lives saved. Another day in Sen. Kennedy's office. That was our job because it was his job.


Jerry Tinker R. I. P.

Now the longest tenured member in history of the Senate Judiciary Committee,  Senator Kennedy has been either the Chairman or Ranking Member of its Subcommitee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs for most of that period. And for much of that time, his chief aide for these matters was Jerry Tinker, who passed away untimely in 1995.  

I first met Jerry in the early 1960s in Calcutta, India, when he was a student there and later worked for the (now defunct) United States Information Service in cultural affairs. The USIS was not then as much of a pure propaganda machine as it later became. Through its auspices and Jerry's instrumentality, we met such non-establishment figures as Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Prof. Logan (an African-American scholar deeply involved in civil rights), Pete Seeger, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg!

Jerry presided over an informal salon of students and visitors, including as ragtag a bunch of young idealists as I have ever known - the first members of the Peace Corps. We imbibed deeply of American culture and politics (and such other iconic American artifacts as Jim Beam) in what were heady days for American prestige abroad (Vietnam was in the future).

Jerry had a deep and abiding love and concern for the struggles of the developing world, especially India, and in particular, Bengal. He rose  to be the staff director of his subcommitte and chief author of the Immigration Reform Act of 1990 (and the unacknowledged one of the "Crisis in South Asia" report footnoted below). But at his heart he remained a "field rat".  

I met him in Calcutta in 1972 when he came through. He always seemed as much at home there (then as now, not an easy city for most Americans to like) and in the villages as he was in Washington.  I ran into him in Nairobi, Kenya in 1984 or 85 (I was there as part of my job with an international aid organization, he was going home after another field trip to Ethiopia). And over the years, we stayed in touch, both as friends and whenever my professional needs required his help, which he always gave unstintingly.

In an essay on Senator Kennedy and his efforts on behalf of humanity, I think it is only fitting to pay tribute to Jerry Tinker, who was the humanitarian heart and soul of much of the senator's work and a true friend of mankind's poorest and most dispossessed.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.



(1) Report to the United States Senate, titled "Crisis in South Asia".  The most complete excerpt online is to be found here, not a site whose views the writer otherwise supports.

Photo credits: Wikipedia commons, People Magazine



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I think people sometimes forget that despite some highly publicized incidents and his alcoholism, Teddy Kennedy has spent his entire life in the service of the public good, at home and abroad. Thanks for reminding us of his legacy.
Thank you, Emma. Definitely a flawed man, but he has been instrumental in an enormous amount of good around the world.
Excellent piece. I especially liked the contrast between Kennedy's moral leadership and the pusillanimous (hah! never thought I'd get to use that word in real life) realpolitik of Kissinger's memo. Also, that was a very gracious tribute to Jerry Tinker.

Yes, yes, yes. I heard yesterday, after his seizure, that he said if he could be back, he Would be back (in the Senate); and if there's anything resembling a health care bill, something with teeth, he'll be there to fight the good fight.
Excellent post. Thanks.

It is a good reminder, too, of the good work that the United States can do in the world, if we have the heart and the sense to do it.
Thank you, Woofie, Connie, Michael. It would be sad to have this voice silenced. He has rarely taken the safely popular positions in violation of his principles -- his support of Barack offended many Hillary supporters, for example, who were quick to tag him as anti-feminist -- but the body of his work will stand as a testament to old-style liberal, progressive principles.
I wonder why we focus on people's flaws rather than allow ourselves to be awestruck that folks who have critical flaws can actually do things that change the world in marvelous ways?

Your friend Jerry Tinker reminds me of any number of people I knew in Washington, DC, who were there to do something lasting and good in their life. We do great dishonor to the great numbers of public servants, who are not drones, but people who commit their lives to making a difference.
Susanne, I'm so glad you commented about Jerry. Thank you.

To me, Jerry represented the seemingly (but not really) contradictory All-American spirit and the spirit of the 60s. And he never lost that combination. He believed we could do good, and throughout his life he did, around the world in the true spirit of public service.
Thank you for introducing me to such friends of my/our country.
I think this is an extraordinary tribute to two great people. But what seems to me more extraordinary is that this was not on EP, let alone on the cover! And that on the day when a sizable number of people, I would venture to guess, were waiting to hear and read about the Senator. And what is even more troubling is that the editors had picked an earlier scurrilous piece on Kennedy (I had made this comment on that post at the time) for the cover. Editorial bias, ya think?
Two moving tributes - thank you.
What a nice write-up. I didn't know most of this. I had always known Senator Kennedy was good and that he was effective (if he wasn't, he wouldn't be the target of right wing hate that he is), I just didn't know how good or how effective.
It will be a long time before we see another family with wealth who cared so deeply for the dispossessed and neglected of the world.
God is letting us keep Ted for a little bit longer.
Thanks so much for this post.
Wow. I hadn't a clue, frankly. I guess I had my own Ted Kennedy stereotype firmly implanted in my head. That's one of the reasons I love OS - it shifts the stale thinking.
Hey, Smithbarney! Wake up! Wake up! Your post made the Most Viewed list two and a half months after the fact! Either you've got a whole buncha fans elsewhere or else the system's screwed up (but on the side of the angels this time :-)). Woof. Woof. Woof.

Darn, I missed my fifteen minutes of fame :(. But thank you, o dog, for watching the feed 24/7 and giving me the momentous news :).
thank you for writing about this. i had a general idea that i liked kennedy for what i knew about him. it's not often that you're happily surprised by a politician's past.