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Why Boston backed Teddy Kennedy

BOSTON – After Ted Kennedy was elected for the first time, at age 30, his home state sent him back to the Senate eight times, all but once by unassailable margins. 

Here in Massachusetts, people understood him and wanted him on their side – and it wasn't just because of his the name. 

It was the accent that was as much Boston as Brahmin. It was his collection of imperfections and failings trumped most of the time by his stubbornness, real passion and just plain will. 

Image: Woman reads special edition of Boston Globe in Boston after Ted Kennedy's death.
Darren Mccollester / Getty Images
Gail Steinbring, left, and Gini Guertin read a special edition Boston Globe dedicated to U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy outside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Thursday in Boston, Massachusetts. 

And there was something else about him that made him an untouchable here: He came from a patrician family that often, as an entity, angered people but he was the one that plain people seemed to be able – and eager – to relate to. 

There are a lot of stories about his "everyman" qualities being told around Hyannis, where he was often just another guy in the produce aisle. But he carried that accessibility everywhere. 

Jimmy Sullivan, the co-manager and bartender at the Union Oyster House, a landmark restaurant in the center of Boston, explained how Kennedy exuded those qualities whenever he came in over the years – often by himself.

"You sit at the Oyster Bar and you can't help but be a regular guy," said Sullivan. "You're sitting face to face and back to back with all the regular people. He used to come in all the time…For a guy who came from wealth, he had a genuine soft spot for the working guy."

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'Master political craftsman'
It was part of his political skills. I've seen it, as has any reporter who covered him. He would look someone he was just meeting right in the eye, wordlessly repeat the person's name, and remember it later.

It was a quality Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., a long time Kennedy friend and colleague, said made him a "master political craftsman."

Delahunt described Kennedy as being the "kind of guy with 10,000 best friends," but he said that he was also the "most generous politician" he knew. 

Yes, Kennedy had enemies who hated him thoroughly and without forgiveness, both for his politics and his personal failings. But he always kept coming back to the arena to take his hacks, make his points and press his arguments. And most people, of all political stripes, respected that.

I covered the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 1979 and remember the senator's voice soaring in emotion at the key turn in his remarks. He spoke about how his brother Jack had taught him to "sail against the wind" and how his brothers taught him to move forward when the elements were aligned against you. 

It was good stuff. Teddy stuff. Like the Red Sox coming close year after heartbreaking year – but unlike his favorite team, he never did win the big prize. Many say he really never wanted the presidency (I covered the 1980 campaign and it sure looked that way to me). But he won thousands of other prizes for "his people."

VIDEO: Boston mourns one of their own

'Fighting the good fight'

Like saving Boston's Hanscom Air Force Base from closure and winning program after program on education, voting rights, immigration reform, labor, civil rights, the list goes on. The nuts and bolts things people wanted and needed and knew he had the muscle to get for them. 

Dr. Lou Casagrande, former president of the Boston Children's Museum, worked with Kennedy to raise over $3 million for educational programs for Head Start children. He praised Kennedy's indefatigable efforts on behalf of the museum.

He said he still has an answering machine message Kennedy left for him over a year and a half ago delivering the good news that they had just won more grant money for one of their programs.

"He made me feel like I was in the Senate" said Casagrande, admiring Kennedy's sense of inclusiveness.

For all of the vast imperfections that made him a figure of ridicule to his critics – Chappaquiddick, his bloat, his drinking, his womanizing – he offered moments of eloquence and triumphant spirit that humanized him in a way his fellow citizens could understand and acknowledge.  

"Sure he had flaws, we all do," said the bartender Sullivan. "But he was one of our own. And whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, Ted was in there, fighting the good fight."

And he continued that fight until the end.

Hours after he got his brain cancer diagnosis he was out in a screaming breeze at the helm of his schooner Mya. Anyone who saw that video could imagine him shouting, "Yeah? I'm not done yet!"  That was the spirit that everyone loved about him up here.

So it's fitting that his body will lie in repose at the JFK library in Boston today and tomorrow.
Sullivan may have summed it up best: "Teddy was one of our own. No matter where he went, no matter whether he strayed or wandered...When you're from Boston they always take you back."

Click here for complete coverage: Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009
The Kennedys: Portrait of an American dynasty