In the thrall of American nobility

Paralyzed by the force of the Kennedy myth at first, Edward soon learned to use it

In the thrall of American nobilityThe world saw the Kennedys as a dazzling emblem of the United States, the uniquely American fusion of politics, money, glamour, reckless sexual appetite­—and tragedy.

But their unprecedented family pride and solidarity placed them far outside what most Americans, rich or poor, consider the American style. They resembled European nobility more than any other U.S. family. They were like English dukes in the casual acceptance of their inherent superiority. Some might be disliked for this audacious self-assertion, but glamour made the Kennedys loved.

Even before Edward Kennedy was born, 77 years ago, the myth that would support and burden him all his life was being forged by his parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy. The father’s long-term ambitions transmitted themselves to his sons in childhood. Family consensus was clear: the oldest male would enter politics and, if the father had his way, become president.

After Joseph Jr. died in the Second World War, John inherited the family’s future. In 1959, as a senator with presidential ambitions, he blandly outlined family protocol: “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our young brother, Ted, would take over for him.”

And so it happened. After John’s assassination in 1963, Robert Kennedy became the standard-bearer; after Robert was assassinated in 1968, Teddy led the way. The siblings sharply differed—John detached and ironic, Bobby much given to abrupt, passionate political commitment, Teddy a natural deal-maker who became the chief promoter of liberal causes in the Senate. But their political directions were essentially the same.

The key to all Kennedy lives was an automatic sense of entitlement that they never felt called upon to express or explain. They were born to rule and instructed from birth that no one was to stand in their way. They treated even their most distinguished friends as courtiers, people to be valued for their usefulness.

The fortune founded by Joseph Kennedy (now worth roughly half a billion dollars) meant they could devote all their time to public affairs and private pleasures. With the help of expert advisers and speech writers, they drew around themselves an aura of destiny. They made their success seem inevitable.

They established a one-family elite, based crudely on blood, carefully separated from the commoners who made up the rest of the population. There were Kennedys, and then there were all the rest. Amazingly, they accomplished this within a constitution that was carefully designed to limit individual power and discourage the creation of nobility.

They projected their family legend onto national politics and identified themselves with every current liberal belief. Liberal American journalism sometimes abandoned them but always returned (as it did last weekend) to pour fresh praise on their memories. The Kennedys lived like movie stars but were buried like Roman emperors.

Their special status was crucial to Edward in 1969, after Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in a car he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. His lawyers managed to keep unanswered the key questions that accident raised: why did he leave the scene and not report it to the police? Was he drunk? Kennedy accepted blame while claiming amnesia and asked for mercy from the Massachusetts voters. Obligingly, they re-elected him at the next opportunity. It seems as clear now as it was at the time that only the enchantment of the Kennedy name saved his career.

Even Kennedys of the next generation were caught in this web of enchantment. As recently as last winter, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John, was bold enough to ask for appointment to New York state’s empty U.S. Senate seat, despite a lack of political experience and an inability to say why she wanted the job. Before rejecting her, the governor of New York paid tribute to the Kennedys by taking her seriously.

The Kennedys loved the word “dream” and acted as if they owned it. They were always selling the voters on another dream about improving American life. Details changed with the era but it always involved a Kennedy holding office.

Edward Kennedy first appeared paralyzed by the force of the myth he inherited but eventually learned to use it. He eloquently articulated it after he failed to wrest the 1980 Democratic nomination from the sitting president, Jimmy Carter, a party-fracturing campaign that helped elect Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy’s speech at the convention, the best of his life, implied that he, not Carter, spoke out of the great American tradition. He said he was there not to argue as a candidate but to affirm the cause Democrats had embraced since Thomas Jefferson, “the cause of the common man and the common woman.” He argued for health insurance, price controls and a government guarantee of full employment, “old values that will never wear out.” After quoting from Woody Guthrie (“from California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf stream waters”) and Tennyson (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”), he finally delivered the words that were most often quoted after his death: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” In Boston on Sunday, as mourners gathered for his funeral, a billboard on nearby Tremont Street showed a big picture of Kennedy and a single phrase, “The dream lives on.”

Robert Fulford was on staff at Maclean’s in the 1960s and has contributed stories for almost 50 years. He is currently a National Post columnist.

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