Boston, Massachusetts: The last thing I expected when I decided to head to America to see pals and sights was that I’d be thrown into a city in mourning. The death of US political icon Senator Edward Kennedy on Wednesday hadn’t meant a great deal to me, not knowing much about US politics.
Across the road from where I’m writing, the flags on the Boston Public Library are at half-mast. The first thing I saw when I turned on my hotel TV last night was Katie Couric live from Boston. The second thing was an hour of live programming from where Senator Kennedy was lying-in-state, at the JFK Library a few miles from here.
It was a genuinely moving broadcast – he was Massachusetts’ senator, and a father figure for the liberal politics that many here hold close to their hearts. A report from Washington told how he helped out at a children’s reading group. The presenters recounted tales of his work in the state, as huge queues formed outside the library.
This morning, I went to see it for myself. On the way there, a sign at a building site read “CARPENTERS UNION SALUTES SENATOR KENNEDY”. Free buses are took mourners from the transit stop to the library, where already hundreds of people were waiting in warm sunshine.
There were no tears, though – people were glad to be there, to pay their respects to a man who the people of Massachusetts were deeply proud of. “The line! You gotta come together! The cameraderie!,” joked one person. They were remembering their senator with smiles.
I got chatting with Molly and Michael, whose parents had campaigned for John F Kennedy in the 1960 election. They’d returned the favour by campaigning for Obama last year, and Michael runs a non-profit group, Generation Progress. We chatted about healthcare reform and the difference between US and UK politics. All around us people chipped into the conversation. My NHS organ donor card suddenly became a item of personal pride.
People handed out bottles of water to the queue, while union members handed out stickers recalling JFK’s campaign and “THANK YOU TEDDY” posters.
Then there was ripple of excited whispers from the queue- members of the Kennedy family were walking down the line, pausing and chatting with people. They were genuinely touched by the turnout, and the people whose hands they shook were not starstruck – this was citizen thanking citizen. It’s often said that the Kennedy family are America’s royalty. But they struck me as anything but.
Inside the JFK Library, the line shuffled past the senator’s closed casket. An honour guard stood upright around his flag-draped coffin. As we approached, so did a new guard of soldiers – it was precisely 11am- an we got to see the changing of the guard, with the coffin saluted and bayonets raised. I’ll remember this the next time an American praises us Brits for our pagentary – it was a stirring sight.
Outside, Massachusetts state politicians filed in to pay their respects in a ceremonial procession. Outside broadcast vans and reporters milled around, a dramatically-haired woman from Fox looking out of place. Scores queued to sign books of condolence.
On the bus back, the atmosphere was easygoing, and the driver joked with passengers getting off early. Tomorrow will see Barack Obama in town for a memorial Mass. But for now, people in Boston are happy to remember Edward Kennedy with smiles – which seems to me to be the best tribute anyone can have.