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Political intelligence

Five years later, Ted Kennedy’s legacy still being written

Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Mike Theiler/Getty Images)

Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Tony Bennett, it turns out, is a hell of a guy.

This was five years ago, to the day, on the way out of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Mission Hill, on a day about as lousy as you can get in August around here, a sideswipe from Tropical Storm Danny.

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Tony Bennett, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, was coming out of the church and into the soup, buoyant in that way one can be after a well-executed send-off, and seemed a terrifically nice person. Near him were Lauren Bacall (not as pleasant as she snapped at fellow mourners) and Dave Wedge, who was then a member of the fraternity in good standing with the Boston Herald, and is now, regrettably, in the employ of a well-heeled, white-shoe, blue-chip government influence and publicity firm, flacking for the Olympics in Boston.

In any case, Bennett was at Ted Kennedy’s funeral Mass, which may have been the country’s singular political-and-glamour event of the past decade, and perhaps the most notable in the city’s history. Four presidents attended, and at least one congregant noted that the rain felt like a final absolution for Teddy, whose sins were both plentiful and well documented.

As colossal a figure as he was in life, Kennedy has been only idealized or enlarged in death. Consider the chain of political reactions following Kennedy’s death, without which the world might know Elizabeth Warren only as the layer of the intellectual foundation for Occupy Wall Street, which is not as good a title as “senior senator.” Scott Brown could be the holder of a constitutional office in Massachusetts, rather than taxing that poor truck trying to visit every diner in New Hampshire. Martha Coakley could have been running for governor this year as a respected attorney general, rather than something of a political ghost story pollsters tell around campfires, quietly thinking there but for the grace go they.

Kennedy’s exit also opened a national vacuum, into which Warren has moved somewhat, in the imaginations of both the left and the right. As President Obama has let down what a former aide once derisively termed “the professional left” in ways Ted never did, there are no figures as prominent as Kennedy who can rile both sides. Liberalism, five years later, remains something of a rudderless ship.

“Senator Kennedy led a uniquely public life,” the Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., himself quietly one of the city’s most important figures of the last half-century, said over the bier that day, in a bit of Jesuitical understatement.

Kennedy’s death accelerated the pace of change in the way business is done in both Massachusetts and Washington.

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After Monan’s words, once the Cold War-era cast of pallbearers had shuffled past, and another priest had name-checked the pile of dignitaries, many of them visiting Mission Hill for the first time, the president, whom Kennedy had helped elect, termed him “the soul of the Democratic Party” in a tone that, a few years later, might sound wistful.

True perhaps nationally (and maybe even a little internationally, given that Kennedy was one of “The Four Horsemen” who helped begin the healing in Northern Ireland), but in Massachusetts, Kennedy exceeded that — he was the party’s nerve and its sinew and muscle.

And its skeletal structure. Generations of Kennedy retainers made fortunes off the family name and influence. With Teddy’s departure, a new generation of political professionals has emerged, with its own sugar daddies and mamas. His death accelerated the pace of change in the way business is done in both Massachusetts and Washington, and ask anyone who makes their living off politics and they’ll tell you that the repercussions are being felt still.

It was curious for Kennedy, his life so shrouded in others’ deaths, to have a funeral of his own. As the writer Charlie Pierce noted of the man, “His best speeches are all eulogies,” which is a horrible and wonderful thing to have said of someone.

That day on Mission Hill, with Tony Bennett and Lauren Bacall and three generations of presidents looking on, along with Jack Nicholson and Bill Russell and Bob Woodward, it was Teddy’s turn to be eulogized. The story, though, of what came after is still being written.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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