Politics is a messy business. One wrong move is all it takes to end a career: a blunder in a speech, backing an unpopular law, associating with the wrong people. Relatively minor problems can destroy a bright future in minutes. It is a testament to the lasting legacy of recently deceased Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy that he was able to persevere and affect so much change in his unusually long career despite so many setbacks and scandals. He is survived by his wife Victoria, sister Jean Kennedy Smith, the only living child of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, and his three children.
Edward Moore Kennedy was born in St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester on February 22, 1932, preceded by eight brothers and sisters, to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald, both from well-connected Irish-American families. As a result of several moves, to New York, Florida, and London, Kennedy attended many schools and was a mediocre student at most of them. He spent his high school years at Milton Academy where he maintained average grades and excelled on the football team.
Tragedy marked his life early on, and by age 16 he had suffered the deaths of three of his siblings: Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. in World War II, Rosemary Kennedy to a failed lobotomy, and Kathleen Agnes Kennedy in a plane crash.
After completing high school, Kennedy enrolled in Harvard University, where his grades once again took a back seat to his football career. He had a friend take his Spanish exam in hopes of maintaining high enough grades to continue his sports career. When caught, both were expelled, leading to a stint in the United States Army for Kennedy in 1951.
Thanks to his father’s political connections, he was never assigned to combat in the ongoing Korean War and instead served as an honor guard in Paris after completing basic training and Military Police school.
Shortly after he was discharged as a private first class in March 1953, Kennedy returned to Harvard to finish his studies and, after his sophomore year academic probation ended, his football career as a second string end, working his way up to starting end by senior year. Despite not receiving a varsity letter he was contacted by a Green Bay Packers recruiter with an offer to play professionally, which he turned down to go to law school and “go into another contact sport: politics.”
While attending the University of Virginia School of Law between 1956 and 1959, Kennedy studied abroad at the Hague Academy of International Law and managed his brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 1958 Senate re-election campaign, helping to achieve a record-setting landslide victory. He also received charges of reckless driving and operating without a license, the first of his vehicle-related incidents.
He graduated from law school and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1959, after marrying Virginia Joan Bennett on November 29, 1958, at St. Joseph’s Church in Bronxville, New York. They had three children together: Kara Anne, Edward Jr., and Patrick. Due to his womanizing and her growing alcoholism, the marriage was soon troubled.
In 1960, Ted’s brother John ran for president, and Ted managed his campaign in the Western States, helping John win the first battleground state of Wisconsin in the Democratic primary. After the general election, Ted wanted to remain out West and not run for office immediately, and he was not eligible for John’s vacated Massachusetts Senate seat until his 30th birthday on February 22. Instead, John asked Governor Foster Furcolo to name Benjamin A. Smith II to the seat, which would hold it so Ted could later run in a special election.
Rehashing his brother’s campaign slogan from 10 years prior, Ted Kennedy went against Massachusetts Attorney General Edward J. McCormack Jr., who said that Ted would be “one Kennedy too many.” He faced his first public scandal when McCormack revealed his Harvard expulsion publically, but Kennedy rose above this, aided by McCormack’s overbearing nature in a debate, in which he said “the office of United States Senator should be merited, not inherited,” and called Kennedy’s campaign a joke. Kennedy went on to crush McCormack in the primary by a two-to-one margin and Republican candidate George Cabot Lodge II in the November special election.
Ted Kennedy spent his early Senate career avoiding the spotlight and trying to avoid making enemies of the older, more established Senators, and instead focused on his committee work. Not long after his career started, while presiding over the Senate, he was informed of his brother John’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Seven months later, Ted suffered severe injuries in a plane crash in Southampton, Mass., including a punctured lung, broken ribs, and internal bleeding, and a back injury that persisted throughout the remainder of his life. The pilot and one of his aides died in the crash.
For a review of some of Ted Kennedy’s major political accomplishments, read Dan Kennedy’s piece for Blast on the Lion’s legacy.
In 1968, after securing the California primary against President Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, the family member Ted was closest with, was assassinated, devastating the young Senator. He delivered a eulogy at his speech, which included one of his most famous quotes:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’
Seen by many as the natural successor to his brother, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and others encouraged Kennedy to make himself available for a draft to take the nomination, though he declined as he felt unprepared and did not want to be seen as a filler now that his brothers were gone.
With his brothers dead, Ted took on the role of paternal figure to their 13 children, and rumors persist that he coordinated the marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis.
Despite the trauma and hardships he had recently suffered, Kennedy threw himself into his work and became the youngest ever Senate Majority Whip in 1969, a move that seemed to further position him for the presidency, which he still felt conflicted about.
A few months later, Kennedy was involved in what is now known as the “Chappaquiddick incident.” After leaving a party for the Boiler Room Girls, a group of women who had helped in Robert’s presidential campaign, Kennedy drove his 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 off the Dike Bridge and into the Poucha Pond inlet. He quickly swam to safety, but his passenger, Boiler Room Girl Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Kennedy did not report the incident to police until her body was found the next day.
Kennedy received a suspended sentence after a guilty plea to leaving the scene of an accident a week later, and gave a nationally-broadcasted speech in which he avoided admitting guilt to driving under the influence of alcohol or improper relations with the 28-year old Kopechne, but expressed his decision to leave the scene as “indefensible.” Despite the scandal, Kennedy received a positive response to stay in office from the Massachusetts electorate.
Doubts have clouded the reports of the events of that night, and to this day many question Kennedy’s story, which a secret inquest by Judge James A. Boyle found to be inconsistent. A grand jury on Martha’s Vineyard also conducted an inquest which was inconclusive. Kennedy condemned Boyle’s inquest, which was made public after the local inquest’s report, as “not justified.”
Kennedy overcame the allegations and easily won re-election the year following the incident, 1970, but lost his position as Majority Whip to Robert Byrd of West Virginia, which he confided to Byrd was a blessing as it allowed him to focus on his committee work.
Kennedy spent much of the 1970s focused on real political work, pushing through legislation such as the National Cancer Act of 1971 and working tirelessly on issues such as the conflict in Northern Ireland, health insurance reform and campaign finance reform. He repeatedly entertained thoughts of running for president, but family problems and the ongoing coverage of the Chappaquiddick incident kept him from committing, despite polling suggesting he could easily win the primary and the lack of other viable Democratic candidates.
In 1973, Kennedy’s son Edward Jr. was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, resulting in a leg amputation. His other son, Patrick, was suffering from severe asthma attacks, and Ted’s wife Joan sunk deeper into her alcoholism, resulting in several stints in instutitions and an accident due to drunk driving leading to her arrest.
In the late mid to late 70s, Kennedy was at his lowest point politically, as he found himself without a chairmanship and Carter taking the reins as the ranking Democrat. Carter’s differing priorities put a strain on Kennedy’s efforts to improve health care, and he instead focused on international good will, visiting China and the Soviet Union in 1977 and 1978. He rose to take the mantle of Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, but suffered another blow when Carter refused to back the $60 billion price tag of his proposed national health care plan.
In an unusual bid to unseat Carter, a member of his own party, Kennedy eventually ran for president in the 1980 election, and was the favored candidate due to Carter’s unpopularity and weak stances on many issues, but he ultimately lost, in part due to negative press regarding his answer to the Chappaquiddick incident question and the electorate’s sudden support of the president during the Iranian hostage situation and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When Carter badly bruised Kennedy in the Iowa caucuses, many of Kennedy’s key fundraisers bailed, and it was a downward slope from there. Kennedy, however, clung to his fearless nature, no doubt earned on the grid iron in high school and at Harvard, and pushed his campaign all the way to the Democratic National Convention despite almost impossible odds, but conceded the nomination when his measure to free delegates from their voting commitments was defeated on the first night of the convention. Ultimately, Carter’s inability to win over Kennedy supporters aided in his defeat to Ronald Reagan in the general election.
In 1981, Kennedy faced unique challenges, including being a minority member of the Senate for the first time, and announcing his divorce from Joan Kennedy, settling for $4 million in 1982 after a relatively benign proceeding. Kennedy, meanwhile, tirelessly fought against policies of the Reagan administration, once again turned down calls for a 1984 presidential run, and embarked on a landmark trip to South Africa, staying at the home of Bishop Desmond Tutu, which could easily have cost him his life in the tumultuous apartheid atmosphere of the time. He later went on to be a key member of arms control talks with Mikhail Gorbachev under the Reagan administration; despite political differences, he and the president respected each other and maintained amicable relations.
After his divorce, drinking and womanizing became more of a public burden for Kennedy, and he was involved in drunken incidents with fellow Senator Chris Dodd in Washington, including allegedly unwanted physical contact with a waitress in a D.C. restaurant. These factors played a big role in his cutting short any plans of running in the 1988 presidential election.
Following the 1986 Congressional elections, the Democratic Party regained control of the Senate. As a result of his good working relationship with many prominent Republicans, Kennedy was once again one of the most powerful men in Washington, and used his position to effectively defeat Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, which he saw as a threat to the civil rights he had fought so hard for. Kennedy used caustic tactics, including a speech which painted a picture of Bork’s America as a land of back alley abortions and segregation, which many saw as slanderous, but which was ultimately effective.
The 1990s saw Kennedy’s flaws magnified, through rape charges against his nephew following a night of drinking with the elder Kennedy, which Kennedy suppressed with a negative press campaign, as well as many articles and jokes about his conduct with women and his persistent drunken antics. This image put him in a position of ineffectiveness against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, which he opposed due to Thomas’ refusal to comment on Roe v. Wade. His silence on the issue hurt Democrats chances of blocking the nomination, but to speak out would have been regarded as highly hypocritical.
The acquittal of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, and his serious relationship with Victoria Anne Reggie, which led to their marriage in 1992, improved his image, and Victoria is credited with stabilizing his personal life, which let him focus on the larger challenges ahead, including his fight against Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America legislation which earned his title of Lion of the Senate, alater challenge from Republican Mitt Romney for his Senate seat, and his defense of President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. More recently, Kennedy served as a voice against the Iraq War from the start, though he supported the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
By far his most passionate endeavour was the reform of health care in America, “the cause of his life,” he said, but which he died unable to attain. After a seizure in May of 2008, doctors announced Kennedy suffered from a malignant glioma, a brain tumor. After a risky operation to remove the tumor, which was considered a success, Kennedy underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. His condition declined quickly over the next year, and he died at his home in Hyannis Port, MA on August 25, 2009.
Frederick Rincon contributed research for this story.