It wasn’t Chappaquiddick that killed Ted Kennedy’s presidential ambitions. It was Roger Mudd. Or rather it was Ted’s answer to Mudd’s perfectly straightforward question—“Senator, why do you want to be president?”—perhaps the most famous brain cramp in political history.
It was Nov. 4, 1979, three days before he would launch his campaign to unseat Jimmy Carter. “Well,” he began, “I’m . . . were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country that it is . . . has more natural resources than any nation of the world, has the greatest educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world . . .” On and on he plunged, hopelessly, through 250 words of this slop, until at last he seemed to run out of breath. “And I would basically feel that it’s imperative for this country to either move forward, but it can’t stand still or otherwise it moves backward.”
Why did he want to be president? Wasn’t it obvious? Because it was his turn. Jack’s had been cut short, Bobby never got the chance. The job was open, or the next thing to it, with Carter’s numbers. Why the hell not?
All his life Ted wore the Kennedy legacy, its blessings and its burdens. He profited from the family wealth, surfed in the wake of his more talented older brothers, shared in the Kennedy sense of effortless entitlement. Would he have been a senator at 30 otherwise, Jack’s seat held for him almost in trust until he was of age? At that stage of his life his resumé was mostly distinguished by an expulsion from Harvard for cheating, and a two-year military tour . . . in Paris.
But as much as the family name bore him up, it also weighed him down. In early adulthood he seemed almost to drown in the delights of being a Kennedy, a good-looking wastrel who drank too much and drove too fast and cheated on his young wife, relentlessly. But after his brothers’ deaths, it became a drag anchor on his life. When would he run for president? In ’72? ’76? ’80? Wasn’t it predestined? As inevitable, surely, as his eventual assassination? Wasn’t that in the script, too? Not even defeat in 1980 extinguished the speculation altogether, though his campaign was desultory. He seemed almost uninterested. Why did he run? Because he had to.
It seems remarkable that Chappaquiddick didn’t put an end to his career long before then. It isn’t so much the accident itself, or his failure to report it to police until the following morning. It’s the calculated deceptions, the deliberate manipulation of events, beginning almost immediately and maintained for the rest of his days. A witness would contradict his story on one key point. The judge in the inquest found he lied about another. At the funeral for Mary Jo Kopechne, Kennedy turned up with pregnant wife in tow, though she had earlier suffered two miscarriages and had been confined to bed by her doctors. She lost the baby. But appearances were kept up.
There is a desire to see the latter half of his life, liberated by his 1980 loss from further presidential ambitions, tested by more personal suffering (his son’s cancer, the tragedies that fell like rain across his extended family), as a kind of redemption: when the youthful deadbeat matured into the Lion of the Senate, whose legislative skills and flair for bipartisanship saw more than 300 bills passed into law. But in truth Kennedy’s undeniable later achievements did not redeem his legacy: they only made it more complicated.
We want to believe our heroes are one thing, and then another, their character having progressed along the prescribed arc of self-discovery. But Kennedy’s life is not the story of Prince Hal, but of Falstaff. He spent most of the 1980s, after his divorce, drinking and womanizing on a quite spectacular scale, until the disastrous late-night excursion to the Au Bar, ending in the trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith for rape.
After that it is true he sobered up, with the help of his second wife. But what struck me through last week’s memorials, amid the usual contrived Kennedy worship in the media, was the genuine affection in which he was held by so many of those closest to him—not only family, but colleagues and friends. They did not love him, it was plain, in spite of his faults, but because of them; not because he became a better man or a wiser legislator later in life, but because his achievements and his failings stemmed from the same complex, flawed source: thoughtless, kind, self-indulgent, generous, reckless, shrewd, a man outsized in every respect, his excesses running in every direction.
A legislative record is all very well. But the true measure of a life is how many people show up at your funeral.
For more on the Kennedys, pick up Maclean’s commemorative issue, “The Last of the Kennedys,” on newsstands now.