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Bill Carter reflects on his Kennedy family encounters

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By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post  When Rolling Stones musician Mick Jagger wanted to meet Sen. Edward Kennedy, Bill Carter made it happen. From left in this 1981 photograph are Kathy Woods, Kennedy, Carter, Jagger and Jane Rose.

The death of 77-year-old Sen. Edward Kennedy on Tuesday in Hyannis Port, Mass., brings back a mixture of poignant memories for Lebanon’s Bill Carter. 

Carter, 73, who has lived here since 1994, was a Secret Service agent who in 1963 accompanied President John F. Kennedy’s body to the Capitol, the funeral and Arlington Cemetery. He ran Sen. Edward Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign in Arkansas.

“It’s kind of through John F. Kennedy that I had a bonding with the Kennedy family. It’s a sad day for me,” Carter said Wednesday afternoon. “Ted is the last of the Kennedys that I feel connected to. It’s kind of end of an era for me and my love and friendship to the Kennedy family.”

Carter served in the Secret Service from 1962 to 1965, and it was at the White House that the young agent first met JFK.

“I was just a kid and a brand new agent. I was standing in a corner talking to one of the White House agents, and he came by, and this is the Kennedy I really appreciate, and he asked the agent who I was. He stopped, shook hands and introduced himself. My knees were shaking. He said, ‘Hi Bill, I’m Jack Kennedy.’ I thought, ‘No kidding.’”

Carter served two years during the Kennedy administration and two years during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration before he left the Secret Service to complete his law degree at the University of Arkansas and begin practicing law in Little Rock, but not before that he worked on the Warren Commission about President Kennedy’s assassination.

“I knew Ted while I was working with JFK, and then I managed most of his campaign in Arkansas in 1980 when he ran against Jimmy Carter. We didn’t do so well, but it was fun. We got so few votes for Kennedy in Arkansas that I had to leave town and move to Tennessee. Ted was not popular in my home state,” Carter said.

“I was out of touch with Ted a few years, but I called on him when I went to Washington and stopped by and would say hello. When I would see him, he would remember me like I was a significant figure in his life. He and JFK, I compare them to Billy Graham -- he makes you feel like the most special person in the all the world -- and the Kennedys did that as well. When they turned to you, they saw you as an important person and treated you with dignity and respect. Not a lot of politicians have figured that out,” said Carter, who wrote about his career in law, entertainment business and federal service in his 2005 autobiography “Get Carter.”

While John F. Kennedy went by Jack to his friends, Robert Kennedy was called Bobby and Edward Kennedy was known as Ted.

“I never knew anybody that called him Edward. They really all called him Teddy. He always called me Billy. It was an affectionate thing, less formal than Bill, I guess,” Carter said. “I never knew him as anything but Ted, or I would call him Senator. The last time I actually saw him was at the Kennedy Library about 2001 or 2002, and he came over and I addressed him as Sen. Kennedy then, and he called me Billy. He was a very warm person.

“The thing I was thinking today, what impressed me most about the Kennedys is that they were born wealthy. Their dad was a wealthy, successful businessman. He may have had a reputation of somewhat being a very aggressive businessman and all about money, but from Joe, who died volunteering in a risky assignment in World War II. He didn’t have to do that. And none of the Kennedy children had to dedicate their lives to public service, but they did that. They donated their time to public service. They were sincere in helping the public and people who were disadvantaged. I don’t see that in this current generation.

“I think about Teddy negotiating the peace in Ireland between the Irish and Great Britain. He was a negotiator, a person willing to compromise. When I look at the two-party system at each others’ throats, very few politicians today are willing to compromise… I think Teddy Kennedy was the last of the great negotiators and compromisers who stepped in for the betterment of mankind.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Senate passed the health bill in his honor and that some Republicans step up. I think in his death, Sen. Kennedy still might have an influence on getting that legislation passed. The next generation is really gonna miss Teddy Kennedy,” said the lawyer who worked through the years with such musicians as the Rolling Stones, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings, Bill Gaither and TV/radio personality Ralph Emery.

Sen. Edward Kennedy had served in the U.S. Senate since 1962. The youngest and ninth child born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, he died two weeks after the death of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, after a yearlong battle with brain cancer.

Sen. Kennedy’s body lies in repose at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where a memorial service will be held tonight. Five presidents, among others, are expected to attend his private funeral mass Saturday morning at the Mission Church in Boston. His body will then be flown to Arlington National Cemetery where he will be buried near his brothers Saturday afternoon.

“I grew fond of the Kennedy family through JFK. It was a part of history, but now I try not to dwell on it, as it is such a sad time,” Carter said. “If Teddy Kennedy knew you were doing something that he felt deserved recognition, he took the time to reach out to you, and I loved him for that.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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