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The last of the Kennedys

From 2009: The death of Ted Kennedy marks the end of America’s most iconic dynasty

The three brothers share a Virginia hillside with a view of a city that few would call shining. John F. Kennedy’s gravesite—as befitting a fallen president—is the most elaborate. A large circular stone plaza to accommodate the crowds that still come to Arlington National Cemetery 46 years after his assassination, topped with a simple black granite headstone and an eternal flame. Down a short path like the spoke of a wheel, Robert F. Kennedy, gunned down in 1968, lies beneath a plain white cross. And now, a little further still, Edward M. Kennedy, buried this past weekend in the shadow of two large maples, and his tragic siblings.

The 77-year-old, who succumbed to brain cancer on Aug. 25, was the youngest of nine children, and never meant to be the family standard-bearer. But the political ambitions that fell to J.F.K. when the eldest brother, Joseph Jr., died in action during the Second World War descended inexorably down the line with each fresh family horror. And in the end, “Teddy,” a man who proved to be far too flawed for the nation’s highest office, improbably may be remembered as the greatest of them all. In his 47-year career as a U.S. senator for his native Massachusetts, Kennedy authored more than 300 pieces of legislation, and steered thousands more through partisan shoals with a unique mix of bluster, bonhomie, and pragmatism (“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” was his oft-repeated credo).

His progressive legacy includes legal protection for the disabled, state-run health insurance for children, food programs for poor mothers, education reform, and lowering the voting age to 18. “The greatest expectations were placed upon Ted Kennedy’s shoulders because of who he was, but he surpassed them all because of who he became,” President Barack Obama eulogized at the packed funeral mass in a Boston basilica. “A champion for those who had none, the soul of the Democratic party, and the lion of the United States Senate.”

History has taught us that John and Jackie’s Camelot was never more than a glamorous myth. Robert may have joined Martin Luther King Jr. in calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, but after his slaying it took five more years and a Republican president to bring his brother’s war to an ignoble end. Written off as a political force after 1969’s Chappaquiddick incident, Teddy proved that some American lives do indeed have second acts. And as if to emphasize the point, fell from public grace again two decades later as an aging, drunken roué, only to stage another comeback. He was the best and the worst his country has to offer wrapped up in a single package. The last call for an American dynasty.

If Joseph P. Kennedy, the late president’s father and patriarch of the clan, left his sprawling brood with anything—besides a vast fortune and influence to burn—it was an almost religious belief in the virtues of effort. “For the Kennedys,” he used to boast, “it’s the outhouse or the castle—nothing in between.” But for the longest time, it seemed like Teddy never absorbed the lesson. Growing up in a family of strivers—J.F.K.’s prep-school yearbook presciently declared him “Most likely to become president”—he was an indifferent student. And in 1951, his first year at Harvard, he was expelled for having a friend take a Spanish exam in his place. (The family managed to suppress the story until Ted first ran for his big brother’s old Senate seat 11 years later.) There was a two-year stint in the army, spent safely away from the battlefields of Korea at NATO’s then-headquarters in Paris, then a less eventful return to Cambridge to complete his degree before moving on to study law at the University of Virginia.

Ted’s first political experience was managing John’s Senate re-election campaign in 1956. (The war hero returned to Boston from his PT boat and won a seat in Congress in 1946, graduating to the upper chamber six years later.) In 1960, he oversaw efforts in the Rocky Mountain states for J.F.K.’s presidential campaign. But it was Bobby, a crusading special counsel in Washington, who was rewarded with a seat at the cabinet table as attorney general.

The Kennedy blueprint called for Ted to take over in the Senate, but at 28 he was two years younger than the minimum age set out in the U.S. constitution. A family friend, Ben Smith, was named as a placeholder and served until 1962, when the youngest Kennedy triumphed over his razor-thin resumé—he was nominally an assistant district attorney in Boston, but spent most of his time building his political profile—and won both the Democratic primary, and a special election. Years later he still cherished the photo Jack sent him in the wake of the win. “To one coattail rider from another,” the president had written.

A report card for Ted Kennedy’s early Senate years would damn him with the faint praise, “works well with others.” Despite his famous brothers, it was generally agreed that he knew his place, was properly deferential to more senior legislators, kept his mouth shut and worked hard. He was presiding over the chamber on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when his brother was gunned down in Dallas. Bobby took charge of the family and funeral. It was Ted’s job to travel to Hyannis Port and break the news to their father, by then severely disabled from an earlier stroke.

When J.F.K. was slain, most of his ambitious legislative program was bogged down in Congress. It was his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, with Bobby’s incessant prodding, who finished the work and carried it further, invoking the president’s memory to push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and start the War on Poverty. Ted remained in the background as R.F.K. picked up the family torch. Shaken, but seemingly not as stirred.

A June 1964 plane crash almost made him a historical footnote (Joe Jr. and his sister Kathleen were both killed in aviation accidents). A political aide and the pilot died, and Kennedy suffered a broken back. He waged a successful re-election campaign from his hospital bed, with his wife, Joan, taking on his public appearances. It wasn’t until 1965 that he really established his bona fides as a Washington power broker. Back in the Senate, he proposed an amendment to the proposed Voting Rights Act that would have abolished a long-established “poll tax” that helped keep southern blacks away from the ballot box. Going against much of his own party and president Johnson, who feared the amendment would sink the bill and its other reforms, he pushed the matter to a vote, narrowly losing, but serving notice of his increasing clout.

Robert’s assassination in June 1968, during celebrations of his California presidential primary victory, thrust Teddy into the national spotlight. His moving eulogy—“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”—electrified the nation. But Teddy struggled deeply with the notion that he must be the one to fulfill the family destiny. He spurned attempts later that summer to draft him to the 1968 Democratic presidential ticket. And he began to drink heavily, with his public behaviour becoming more and more indiscreet.

In the spring of 1969, he fulfilled a campaign promise R.F.K. had made to visit Alaska. On the flight home, he got drunk and unburdened himself before a planeload of reporters: “They are going to shoot my ass off the way they did Bobby’s.”

In the early morning hours of July 18, 1969, Kennedy made the mistake that defined his life. Coming home from a party in honour of his late brother, he took a wrong turn, and plunged his car off a dike on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old campaign secretary for R.F.K. (reputed to be Robert’s mistress in a recent muckraking book, Bobby and Jackie: A Love Story, which also claims there was a four-year-long tryst between the former first lady and her brother-in-law), drowned. Kennedy always maintained that he tried desperately to rescue her, diving repeatedly until exhaustion forced him from the water. But he waited nearly 10 hours to report the accident, calling family and political advisers long before the police.

As the scandal grew, his took to the airwaves to plead for understanding, claiming the shock and a concussion resulted in the “various inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things I said and did.” His obvious contrition and regret even won over Kopechne’s mother: “I am satisfied with the senator’s statement, and do hope that he decides to stay in the Senate,” she wrote to reporters. In the following days, Western Union delivered more than 10,000 telegrams to the family compound in Hyannis Port. Fewer than 100 demanded he resign. Kennedy had saved his political skin, but at a great cost. He would never be president.

Kennedy passed on a chance to be the running mate of the doomed George McGovern in 1972. He ruled himself out in the early stages of the 1976 campaign to deal with family troubles, including his son Ted Jr.’s loss of a leg to bone cancer. And when he finally did make a grab for the brass ring in 1980, his attempt to wrest away the Democratic nomination from a sitting president, Jimmy Carter, quickly turned into a quixotic charge. The campaign was poorly organized and dogged by questions about Kennedy’s behaviour at Chappaquiddick. And despite late victories in the California and New York primaries, the race was never close. In fact, Kennedy’s finest moment came in defeat, in a feisty speech to the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Gardens, that was a concession in name only. “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

But the notion that a Kennedy’s place was in the White House had suffered a mortal blow. The senator laid the groundwork for a 1984 campaign, but never launched it, convinced that the memory of Mary Jo Kopechne was still too powerful. And, newly divorced from Joan, his wife of 24 years (she left the family home in 1978 to deal with her own alcohol problem, but campaigned by his side in 1980), his personal life started to again come under scrutiny.

There had always been plentiful gossip about Kennedy’s womanizing. Richard Nixon used the Secret Service agents assigned to protect Ted to gather dirt against his potential rival. And the infamous Oval Office tapes caught the Republican president and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, marvelling at the senator’s recklessness in the summer of 1972:

Nixon: What the hell is the matter with Teddy? It isn’t a question, I mean, I don’t think it’s a sex business. I think his problem, his lack of discretion, don’t you think it’s the booze? He can’t resist . . .

Kissinger: First of all, he drinks.


Nixon: No, no. Bobby and Jack, everybody knows it, had their own ladies. They were a hell of a lot more discreet.

But it was not just Ted Kennedy’s behaviour that was raising eyebrows. What would become the continual cheapening of his brothers’ legends started with a 1973 book by Earl Wilson, a Hollywood gossip columnist, claiming an affair between J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe. And when a U.S. Senate committee probing CIA dirty tricks released a report in December 1975 suggesting that Judith Exner, a woman who allegedly helped recruit agents to assassinate Fidel Castro, was a “close friend” of both the late president and mobster Sam Giancana, the gloves really came off—and would stay off.

The press, which had long protected the brothers—in his memoirs, Ben Bradlee, who helped bring down Nixon as editor of the Washington Post, relates a story about going to a porno theatre with friend and neighbour J.F.K. during one of his Senate campaigns—revelled in the Kennedys’ dirty laundry. A 1990 GQ article about the “slurred” and “bibulous” voice of liberalism was typical of the genre, gleefully detailing a waitress’s tale of catching Ted and a female lobbyist in flagrante delicto on the floor of a Washington restaurant following a boozy lunch. Eventually, what was once unthinkable—naming your punk band the Dead Kennedys, conspiracy theories writ large as Hollywood film, a hit sitcom, Seinfeld, making jest of the footage shot by bystander Abraham Zapruder of J.F.K.’s motorcade and assassination—became mundane. No more heroes.

The nadir for the senator came in April 1991, when his nephew William Kennedy Smith was charged with raping a woman at the family compound in Hyannis Port. Kennedy, who had been out drinking with the 30-year-old earlier that Good Friday evening, was called to testify at the highly publicized trial. And despite Smith’s eventual acquittal, the family name was again dragged through the mud.

Whether it was the shame, or the sense that his own legacy was now in peril, the event proved to be a turning point for Kennedy. In a Harvard speech before he took the stand that fall, the senator once again offered a public mea culpa. “I recognize my own shortcomings—the faults in the conduct of my private life,” he said. “I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.” The next year he married Victoria Reggie, the 38-year-old daughter of family friends, and at the age of 60, his wild years came to an end.

But perhaps the oddest thing about Kennedy’s unusual career is that his greatest years as a senator were also his most tumultuous. The bulk of his legislative accomplishments came in the 1980s. “Even when he was drinking too much or playing around with women young enough to be his daughter, he was still very effective,” says Adam Clymer, the former New York Times chief Washington correspondent who wrote a 1999 biography of the senator. “After people became convinced he wouldn’t run, they stopped worrying that he was doing things to advance his presidential hopes. And that helps in the Senate.”

Kennedy never cared that much about public credit for the bills he helped craft, which was also a boon. Clymer, who attended his funeral, says he wasn’t surprised at the flowery tributes from Republicans who spent years publicly railing against Kennedy, painting him as a liberal bogeyman and filling their own campaign coffers by promising to take him on. For within the confines of Capitol Hill, all his colleagues shared a deep appreciation for his charm, personal kindness, and pragmatism. Ted didn’t need tragedy to make him a Washington legend. “J.F.K. and Bobby burned very brightly on the national scene, but Ted was around for a lot longer. He was alone for 41 years,” says Clymer. “I think it’s his era. Not a Kennedy family era.”

There is speculation that a family member, perhaps Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former congressman and R.F.K’s eldest son, might take a run at his uncle’s Senate seat in a special election this January. But since the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the late president’s son, in a July 1999 plane crash, the next generation has lacked a true star. “John-John’s” sister Caroline made a tentative run at Hillary Rodham Clinton’s New York Senate seat this past winter, but was widely panned as an uninspired candidate and unqualified for the post. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has made a name as an environmentalist and radio host, and has hinted at larger ambitions, but his past drug problems, including a heroin bust in the early 1980s, might weigh him down. The only current family office-holder is Patrick J. Kennedy, Ted’s son, a member of the House of Representatives. But he, too, has had problems with drugs and alcohol, most recently in 2006, when he sought help for an OxyContin addiction after crashing his car into a traffic barricade on Capitol Hill.

And regardless, the Kennedy mantle has for all intents and purposes already been passed on. Ethel, Bobby’s widow, anointed Barack Obama as R.F.K.’s inheritor back in 2005, at a commemoration ceremony of what would have been her husband’s 80th birthday. “I think he feels it,” she said. “He feels it, just like Bobby did. He has the passion in his heart. He’s not selling you. It’s just him.” Ted cast his own vote in January 2008, throwing his weight behind Obama as the Democratic nominee, despite the entreaties of his friends Bill and Hillary Clinton. (The move was symbolic, but not that politically significant. Hillary still handily won the Massachusetts primary.)

The final chapter of Ted Kennedy’s legacy will be written in the coming months. Obama’s ambitious health care reforms are thoroughly bogged down in Congress. But Kennedy’s memory—he called universal health care “the cause of my life”—might be a powerful motivator for his mourning colleagues to craft a deal.

Meanwhile, the still lingering questions about Chappaquiddick may finally be put to rest when Kennedy’s autobiography, completed in the final months of his life, is published in September. Or in early 2011, when the University of Virginia releases tapes of 30 candid interviews conducted for an oral history project on the senator’s life. James Sterling Young, the director of the project, won’t yet reveal what Kennedy said, but allows that “his hurt was apparent. This was not easy for him to do.” Kennedy took his family’s place in American history seriously, and was, in his own way, committed to trying to live up to the lofty rhetoric that he and his brothers will always be remembered for. Few would have predicted it, but Ted Kennedy lasted longer, went further, and unexpectedly grew in stature. “He far exceeded the best tradition of the Senate. He showed what you could do to become a national leader,” says Young. “He was a president, except in name and office.”