Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Melody Barnes – A Life That Was Well Lived

by Bernie Swain

As a lawyer and political advisor, Melody Barnes served as an aide and chief counsel to Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. She also worked on the 2008 Obama campaign and was appointed the Director of Domestic Policy Council.


I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. My family was middle-class, and I had a happy childhood. But growing up African-American in the South I was always aware of those who came before me and paved the way. I think about my parents and grandparents – their example has shaped my life, my work, and my sense of self.

Early Career
I went to the University of North Carolina for my undergraduate degree in history, and then on to law school at the University of Michigan. My first job out of law school was at Sheaman & Sterling, a big firm in New York City.

I was literally working around the clock. The work at the firm was exhausting and frustrating, but whenever I felt discouraged, I’d say to myself, “Are you kidding? Your ancestors worked so much harder in far, far worse conditions than this. You need to suck it up and keep moving forward.”

After several years at Sheaman & Sterling, I realized it wasn’t where I wanted to spend my career. It didn’t reflect my goals – or where my heart was. I wanted to help people who were trying to move up in the world, not simply help those who had already arrived. It really came down to my sense of self. If, in the quiet moments before I fall asleep at night, I’m comfortable with my decisions and confident in my integrity, then I’m okay.

Rise to Politics
After leaving Sheaman & Sterling, I was hired as a counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. In 1995, Senator Ted Kennedy named me chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chaired. I held that job for eight years. In 2009, President Obama named me Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Working with both men was an honor. Sometimes I could hardly believe it was real. I would be sitting in the Oval Office having a conversation with the president, and all of a sudden I would have this out-of-body experience, thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m sitting in the Oval Office talking to the president – and he’s listening to me.” That thought would snap me back to reality: “You had better pay attention because he’s going to ask you a question in a minute and you need to be able to answer it.”

A Man I Admired Greatly
I felt the same sense of awe when I worked for Senator Kennedy. There were times where I would walk through the Capitol and think about all the leaders and legislators who had walked those same halls. But I tried to never to lose sight of the job at hand. And, at the end of the day, that’s what it all came down to.

His Legacy Lives On
In spite of all the trappings of power and history, my colleagues and I got to points where I was tired, frustrated, hungry, and distracted and all the other moments that make us human. But I was determined to hold onto my idealism and be a voice for the most vulnerable Americans. In that respect, I had a powerful teacher.

I love Ted Kennedy, and I say that in the present tense. He is still alive for me. He worked in Washington for decades, and he never lost his sense of possibility and idealism. One night, we went back to his house after an event. It was pouring outside and he said, “You’ll never get a cab in this weather. Stay here and eat with me. Vicky’s at a meeting.” So I sat at his kitchen table, and Ted pulled together a meal for the two of us. We sat there and talked and talked. He spoke with awe about our democracy – about how, in spite of setbacks, the arc of progress and equality move forward. But he added, “It doesn’t happen by itself. We have to work for it.”

On the day of his funeral, which was held in Boston, his body was flown down to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland and then carried to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. I was riding in a bus that was part of the motorcade. Along virtually the entire route, people were standing by the side of the road to pay their respects, many holding signs expressing their love and admiration. There were elderly people sitting on folding chairs, small children held aloft by their parents, men and women of all races and ethnicities, gay couples holding hands – so many people had tears in their eyes. Ted Kennedy had made a difference in people’s lives, and I thought, “For all the challenges, this is a life that was well lived.”

That’s the life I aspire to.


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