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My Friend, Ted Kennedy

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AP

These days, people on "one side" of the political spectrum are not supposed to cooperate, much less have a personal relationship with anyone on the "other side." Siding with "the enemy" can get you branded a compromiser, a sellout, or a fool. While it is true that on too many occasions, conservatives have had their ideological pockets picked by liberals whose favor they curried, that is no excuse for hating people because of their political beliefs.

In the case of my 25-year relationship with Sen. Edward Kennedy, our ideological pockets have remained secure, but our friendship has been something I have treasured.

It began in 1983 when I received a call from a Washington Post reporter. I was working for the Moral Majority at the time and a computer had spit out a membership card for Sen. Kennedy and then inadvertently sent it to him. The reporter asked if I wanted the card back. "No," I said. "We don't believe anyone is beyond redemption. In fact, I hope Sen. Kennedy comes and speaks at Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University)," the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

A few days later, I received a call from Kennedy's chief of staff. "The senator accepts your invitation." I was stunned and so was Falwell, but Kennedy came and was well received. He spoke on faith, truth and tolerance and his remarks are as relevant today as they were when he uttered them. Watch the video on YouTube.

While some might disagree on the way he applied the ideals in his speech to the liberal policies in which he believed; few would contest most of the principles he articulated that night.
Kennedy said: "I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society."

What student or advocate of the First Amendment would disagree with that? Is that not what the Founders had in mind when they prohibited a federally established religion while simultaneously guaranteeing its free exercise? Kennedy continued, "When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly, we are all yoked together as Americans, and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect."

Again, not bad. He added: "Separation of church and state cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power. The challenge today is to recall the origin of the principle, to define its purpose, and refine its application to the politics of the present."

The issues outlined in Kennedy's speech still resonate today, except now it is the Democrats who are talking more about faith and public policy than Republicans.

Getting to know Sen. Kennedy that night and being with him on many subsequent occasions was a wonderful experience. My wife and I had dinner one night at his home where his sister, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was my dinner partner. I was able to understand him on a level far different from TV images and direct-mail appeals that asked for $25 dollars to keep him from doing things that will "ruin" America (the Left sent out similar appeals for money to save America from the Right).

I came to see Sen. Kennedy not as a symbol, but as a fellow human being who did not get up each morning seeking ways to harm the country. I know of things he did for the poor and homeless on his own time and in his own way without a press release or a desire for public approval. I know of other hurts and concerns he shared with a very few he could trust about which I would never speak.

In our poisoned political atmosphere, there are few friendships like this, at least few the friends can speak of publicly for fear of political ruin. I shall miss him, not only because he was a worthy ideological rival, but because with his passing, a part of my youth has gone with him.

Like all of us, Ted had his faults and shortcomings. His played out on a national stage as part of a family that was as close to royalty as we allow. I came to care about him and his soul and more than once prayed for God's grace and mercy on his soul. I hope that prayer was answered.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist and FOX News contributor.

Cal Thomas is America's most widely syndicated op-ed columnist. He joined Fox News Channel in 1997 as a political contributor. His latest book is "What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America" is available in bookstores now. Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribune.com.