When I started this blog in 2021 it soon occurred to me that if I wasn’t careful, I could write an obituary every week. That wasn’t going to exactly sync with my tag line “Ride to the Sunshine”. My dad was an early riser and a devoted reader of newspapers. Mom said that in her later years, she was awakened many mornings with Dad’s question, “Guess who died”. I was dangerously close to that slogan last year.
But some deaths are especially worthy of note. When lives intertwine with ours and have a particular impact on the world, we feel compelled to say something in tribute.
One such passing was last week's death of Melody Miller, 77 in Washington, DC. According to the Washington Post, cause of death was a heart attack.
Melody worked for the Kennedy family for four decades, including 37 as the trusted aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. When some people pass away it is tantamount to a library fire. Melody was an assistant to Jaqueline Kennedy after the assassination of the President, a press aide to Senator Robert Kennedy, and after his assassination, a member of the staff of Senator Edward Kennedy. If it had to do with the Kennedy family, Melody Miller was both the memory and the keeper of the flame.
In the early years of Melody’s service, confidentiality was both possible and expected by public officials. But she was also present when the whole world changed. 24-7 news, invasively investigative journalism, and daily postings from self-appointed “citizen journalists” with iPhone cameras illuminated the bright lights of public scrutiny.
I won’t chronicle the deaths, scandals, controversies, and public triumphs of the Kennedy dynasty in American politics. You probably know them as well as I. You also know the names of Kenny O’Donnell, Larry O’Brien, Frank Mankiewicz, Pierre Salinger, Ted Sorenson, and Dave Powers. They were the behind-the-scenes advisors who became public spokesmen and authors chronicling the Kennedy legacy. But in the male-dominated world of American politics, the advice, loyalty, and presence of Melody Miller was the most enduring.
I met Melody in my capacity as the Director of Congressional and Public Affairs at the National Archives. Her boss, Senator Edward Kennedy was an important member of our oversight committee as well as the surviving Kennedy brother stewarding the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Presidential Libraries are built with private funds by presidential foundations and operated with congressional funding by the National Archives. While I was attentive to the needs and interests of all Members of Congress, those with a facility or vocational connection to the Archives received special attention. Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts and Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland were on the top of that list.
Gatekeepers on Capitol Hill have different titles and as I have described to people unfamiliar with the mores of the Congress, the 535 offices of Senators and Representatives are like 535 private businesses. There are similarities between them, but they are a reflection of the different personalities and styles of the members they serve. In the case of Congressman Hoyer, you didn’t get to see Steny without the approval and assistance of Kathleen May, his scheduler. He was pretty accessible, and I had a great working relationship with Kathleen, a terrific person. We are still in touch.
In the case of Senator Kennedy there were layers and to be honest, I’m not sure I even remember the name of his scheduler. Melody Miller was a personal aide to the Senator, and all knew that she was the true gatekeeper. I had her phone number and that was the one I rang when I needed to see the boss or get a critical request or heads up to him. The first decision Melody made was whether I REALLY needed to see the boss, or whether she would take the meeting for him.
One of the things you learn about Senators is that because there are only 100 of them covering the same number of issues as 435 Representatives, they are all harder to see. The Super Stars are the hardest. When time is of the essence (a critical vote, a thank you, or an apology) you sometimes have to resort to “ambush mode” and make that “chance” encounter when they are coming off the Senate floor on their way back to the office. I jumped on the last seat of the Senate subway on more than one occasion to have a face to face with a key Senator. The patience and excitement of the hunt were a part of the day.
Given Melody Millers unique position with the Senator and his family, when you took a meeting with her it was conducted in the Senator’s side sitting room. She spoke with complete authority and while diplomatic, didn’t mince words when she thought you were out of line. (see my blog A President’s Casket, November 21, 2021) You knew that her protection of the Senator’s reputation and the larger Kennedy legacy was the unspoken third party in every discussion. Quite frankly, I was more nervous speaking to Melody than I was in the five personal meetings I had with the Senator. I didn’t always know everything that was on his mind. Melody left no doubt what was on hers.
As we gained each other’s trust over the years, she was always fair, kind, and just a lovely person to be with. I judge people by how much they want to know about you and between sharing pictures of my daughters, my wife, and my dogs over the years she never failed to ask about the health of my family as we started or completed a meeting. The transactional nature of Capitol Hill can be mind numbing and those who’d engage you as a human being stood out in the course of your day.
It is also arranging a memorable thank you call to someone who can no longer help you with a favor or a transaction that is the most beautiful gesture. After my retirement from the National Archives, I received a personal phone call from Senator Kennedy thanking me for all I had done for him, Caroline, and their family over the years. Those things don’t just happen. Those things happen because of people with a heart like Melody Miller.
I stayed in touch with Melody in the years after Washington, especially around Army Navy football time. While her first love was her alma mater Penn State, she was an ardent Army fan and was a talented handicapper as to what would happen on that special Saturday each year. My favorite exchange was a phone conversation I was able to have with her on December 10, 2016, after attending the game at M&T Bank Stadium. Army prevailed and broke a 14-year losing streak. Melody was levitating.
I was sad when I heard the news of her passing but heartened by the image of an Irish reunion with the Senator signing “The Gang That Sang Heart of My Heart” in his signature baritone. She’s in the arms of the God she loved and the family she served once again.