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When Ted Kennedy Met Jerry Falwell

By Rusty Wright, Founder of Rusty Wright Communications
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Senator Edward Kennedy's death generated cascading tributes to his personal warmth, love of family, compassion, and bridge-building skills. Kennedy often found common cause with his political and philosophical adversaries.

The lion of liberalism's meeting with religious right champion Reverend Jerry Falwell provided a choice example of the irony and humor such encounters could bring. Conservative commentator Cal Thomas served as vice president of Falwell's "Moral Majority." Thomas relates this entertaining story about Kennedy and Falwell:

The Moral Majority often mentioned Senator Kennedy in its fund appeals; the senator and his liberal friends often mentioned Falwell in their own letters. Each side alerted their constituents to reasons for concern about the other.


Once, by mistake, Falwell's group sent Kennedy a "Moral Majority membership card." When the Washington Post asked Thomas if his organization would request the card back, Thomas replied, "No, we don't believe any man is beyond redemption. In fact, we'd like to invite the senator to visit Lynchburg Virginia and visit Jerry Falwell's school." The Post ran the quote.

A couple of weeks later, a Kennedy aid phoned to say, "The senator has decided to accept your invitation." "What invitation?" replied a puzzled Thomas. "The one for the senator to visit Lynchburg," came the response.

Kennedy made the trip, dined with Falwell and gave a warmly-received speech on tolerance and diversity at Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University). Kennedy and Falwell met "on several subsequent occasions," and the episode began Thomas's own "treasured friendship" with Kennedy. Thomas notes, "More of eternal value was accomplished that night and in the subsequent relationship than years of political bashing and one-upmanship had produced."

Grace in Competition

Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, tells another Kennedy story. In 1976, Kennedy helped Davis campaign for Congress. On election night, shortly after television announced Davis' narrow loss, Kennedy phoned to commiserate. He advised Davis to go to his Republican opponent's headquarters to personally congratulate the victor and shake his hand.

Davis did so, and reflects on the evening: "That was one of the many lessons Mr. Kennedy taught me - graciousness in defeat - over the more than the 41 years I was privileged to know him."

Some of my colleagues swear by Ted Kennedy. Others swear at him. In any case, his ability to reach across the aisle to promote the common good - often with disarming humor - earned him many friends and admirers from unlikely quarters.

Grace and Seasoning

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch praised Kennedy the bridge builder at his wake. Former Vice President Dan Quayle cooperated with Kennedy on legislation during his own Senate career. Then Quayle ran for Vice President with George H.W. Bush in 1988. Kennedy sent Quayle a letter saying Quayle had his warm wishes - though not his vote - and offered to speak either kindly or unkindly of Quayle during the campaign, whichever Quayle thought would help him the most.

Kennedy, a Catholic, often seemed to emulate this simple yet profound biblical advice on how to deal sensitively with those who differ from you:

"Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."

Those who, in his death, seem stuck on what they disliked about Ted Kennedy might do well to also consider his qualities they can admire and replicate.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

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