The Kennedy Legacy

Not just politics as usual

Edward M. Kennedy



EDWARD MOORE KENNEDY

February 22, 1932 - August 25, 2009

On the weekend of his Inauguration in 1961, John Kennedy gave Ted, the last born of the Kennedy siblings, an engraved cigarette box. It read: “And the last shall be first.”

Ted Kennedy was born Edward Moore Kennedy in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1932—coincidentally the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The youngest of nine children, Ted grew up in a privileged, Irish Catholic family steeped in tradition. His mother, Rose Fitzgerald, was the daughter of Boston mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. His father, millionaire businessman Joseph P. Kennedy, held many important posts in and out of government.

As a result, the family moved frequently to accommodate Joe’s various posts. The children also changed schools often; by the age of 11, young Ted had already transferred schools 10 times. Despite his busy job, Joseph was careful to put his family first, always writing letters and sending telegrams when he was away, and welcoming any interruptions to his work that had to do with matters involving his children.

Ted’s mother, Rose, was the member of the family who enforced a high level of academic performance in her children. Both parents, however, discouraged idleness and emphasized the importance of healthy competition and success. Dinner was often the staging ground for various quizzes on politics, history, and literature. Discussion and debate were highly encouraged. This taught Ted at an early age to immerse himself in his education and worldly pursuits. “If I wanted to contribute something worthwhile to the conversation, I would have to talk about a book I was reading or an interesting place I had visited,” he later said about his time at the Kennedy dinner table.

But Ted preferred sports to academics and lagged behind his brothers and sisters in school performance, so he learned other ways to hog the spotlight. He quickly became the family jester and an extrovert, always cracking jokes, planning family outings, and charming strangers with his friendly nature. As the baby he also developed a close emotional bond with both his parents. Their soft spot for their youngest child also took the pressure off of him to perform as rigorously as his elder siblings. This sense of lowered expectations would later haunt Kennedy as he tried to make his way into the professional world.

Tragedy would also mar Ted Kennedy’s early life. In 1941, his father secretly had his older, developmentally delayed sister Rosemary lobotomized. The operation failed, and the family had her permanently institutionalized. Several years later, in 1944, brother Joe Jr. was killed when his plane was shot down during a Navy mission. In 1948, his sister, Kathleen, died in a private plane crash over the French Alps. These incidents, and the others to soon follow, would become part of what was later referred to as “The Kennedy Curse.” Ted worked hard to cheer his grief-laden family.

In 1946, Ted entered Milton Academy, an exclusive college prep boarding school eight miles south of Boston. At Milton, Ted immersed himself in athletics, drama, debate, and the glee club. While he performed well, he failed to be a standout student when compared to his over-achieving brothers. His father rode him relentlessly about his grades as well as his weight, and encouraged his son to push himself harder. Ted graduated in 1950, and followed his brothers to Harvard University.

The youngest Kennedy immediately immersed himself in Harvard’s football team, but that Spring, he discovered that he was failing his Spanish class. In order to stay on the team, he would have to pass his final Spanish exam. Ted was expelled when, in desperation, he had another student take a Spanish exam in his place. The school would allow the boys to return in two years if they demonstrated good behavior. As a result, Kennedy enlisted for a two-year term in the U.S. Army and, through his father’s influence, received an assignment as a guard at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Command in Paris, France.

In 1952, Kennedy enrolled again at Harvard and was accepted. He returned to his football career, where his performance attracted the interest of the Green Bay Packers, who tried to recruit Ted in 1955. Kennedy declined the offer, saying he was flattered but wanted to go to law school and enter another contact sport—politics. After Harvard, he studied for a brief time at the International Law School (The Hague) before entering Virginia Law School, where he received his law degree in 1959.

While attending law school, Kennedy met Virginia Joan Bennett when he was delivering a speech at Manhattanville College in October 1957. Bennett was a senior there, had worked as a model and won beauty contests, but was unfamiliar with the world of politics. After their engagement she grew nervous about marrying someone she did not know that well, but his father insisted that the wedding should proceed. They were married by Cardinal Francis Spellman  on November 29, 1958, at St. Joseph’s Church in Bronxville, New York.  Together they had three children: Kara (February 27, 1960 – September 16, 2011), Ted, Jr. (born September 26, 1961), and Patrick Joseph (born July 14, 1967). By the mid-1960s, their marriage was in trouble due to Ted’s womanizing and Joan’s growing alcoholism.

Ted Kennedy campaigned for his brother, John F. Kennedy, in the 1960 presidential race. In 1962, shortly after his brother’s victory, Ted was elected to John’s former U.S. Senate seat. At the age of 30, he became a representative for the state of Massachusetts.

But tragedy was to plague the Kennedy family yet again. In 1963, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. A year later, Ted was in a plane crash and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a back injury and internal bleeding. The injuries resulted in chronic pain, from which he would suffer throughout his life. Although he was unable to campaign actively for reelection for a full term in 1964, he was swept back into office by a landslide vote.

By 1967, Ted Kennedy began to speak out against the Vietnam War, which the United States had become deeply involved in during his brother John’s administration. The United States government set a policy of containing communist expansion worldwide, and it felt Vietnam was the first line of defense. The U.S. government supported the protection of the fledgling democratic government in South Vietnam from the communist government in North Vietnam.

Kennedy, like many Democratic “cold warriors,” initially supported the war. However, as revelations of poor military planning on the part of the United States and political corruption in South Vietnam arose, Kennedy grew critical of America’s involvement. He specifically debated the merits of the military draft, and decried the failure of the United States to provide for the victims of the war. Kennedy visited South Vietnam after the disastrous Tet Offensive, in which North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong insurgents simultaneously attacked more than 100 South Vietnamese cities. Kennedy stepped up his criticism, yet managed to stay on good terms with the Democratic administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

Ted Kennedy encountered family tragedy again when his closest brother, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968 during his presidential campaign. Eulogizing his brother, Ted stated, “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.”

After Robert’s death, Ted became the standard-bearer of the Kennedy clan. In 1969, he became the youngest-ever majority whip in the U.S. Senate, and an early front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A year later, on the night of July 18, 1969, he accidentally drove his car off an unmarked bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. His companion in the car, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. A judge later found Ted Kennedy guilty of leaving the scene of an accident.

Kennedy was reelected to the Senate in 1970 despite the scandal, but the incident dogged his subsequent political career and discouraged him from running for president in 1972 and 1976. In 1980, however, Kennedy decided to launch a presidential campaign against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Kennedy felt Carter’s difficult first term threatened to give control of the government to the Republicans, and the senator was unafraid of publicly criticizing the president. He vowed, however, to support Carter if he happened to win in the presidential primaries. Kennedy won only 10 of the primaries. At the 1980 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy conceded his presidential bid, but gave a hallmark convention speech.

As the 1980s transpired, President Ronald Reagan’s sweeping changes of government gained a stronghold on both the presidency and Congress. Ted Kennedy’s liberalism soon lost favor with many mainstream Democrats. Those years proved to be difficult for Kennedy as he grappled with minority party status and wrestled with his ideological nemesis, Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy also faced trouble in his personal life, as accusations of philandering and alcohol abuse surfaced. In 1982, after 24 years of turbulent marriage, he and wife Joan Bennett Kennedy divorced. In spite of his private struggles, Kennedy won reelection to the Senate in 1982 and again in 1988. In 1992 he remarried—this time to Washington, D.C., lawyer Victoria Reggie—and credits his recovery to his new relationship. Together the couple had two more children: Curran and Caroline Raclin.

With the Democratic victory of Bill Clinton for president in 1992, Ted Kennedy became once again an influential legislator supporting health-care reform. He was an author of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which allows those who change or lose their job to maintain health insurance and protects the privacy of patient information. He also helped author the 1997 Children’s Health Act, which increased access to health care for children age 18 and under.

But by the late 1990s, Ted Kennedy had become one of the Senate’s most prominent members. He amassed a monumental legislative record, passing bills that affected the lives of many Americans of all classes and races. Kennedy sponsored legislation on immigration reform, criminal code reform, fair housing, public education, health care, AIDS research, and a variety of programs to aid the poor. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, he upheld liberal positions on abortion, capital punishment, and busing. Kennedy did this through political skill and bipartisan friendships with conservative Republicans, all the while maintaining his principled liberal roots. Teaming up with conservative stalwarts such as Senators Nancy Kassebaum, John McCain, and Orrin Hatch, Kennedy has cosponsored legislation on worker’s healthcare benefits, immigration, and funding for traumatic brain injuries.

Kennedy extended his legislative record in the new millennium. He worked with both Democrats and Republicans to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, in an effort to close the achievement gap in public schools. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, he coordinated with various agencies to respond to the mental health needs of victims’ families. He also helped sponsor the bipartisan Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act to prevent, prepare for, and respond to bioterrorism emergencies. An initial supporter of the war in Iraq, Kennedy sponsored legislation to procure additional armored Humvees in Iraq battle zones. Throughout the rest of the decade, Kennedy sponsored or cosponsored legislation to enhance the ability of law enforcement to protect abducted children; reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; boost support for Hurricane Katrina victims; and expand Medicaid coverage.

On May 17, 2008, Ted Kennedy entered Cape Cod Hospital after suffering a seizure. Three days later doctors diagnosed the senator with a malignant glioma, an especially lethal type of brain tumor. Kennedy underwent surgery on June 2. “I am deeply grateful to the people of Massachusetts and to my friends, colleagues and so many others across the country and around the world who have expressed their support and good wishes as I tackle this new and unexpected health challenge,” Kennedy said in a statement released hours before the surgery began. “I am humbled by the outpouring and am strengthened by your prayers and kindness.”

Following the operation, doctors pronounced the procedure successful, saying Kennedy should experience no permanent neurological effects. A spokeswoman for Kennedy also said the senator spoke with his wife shortly after surgery, telling her, “I feel like a million bucks. I think I’ll do that again tomorrow.”

As the 2008 presidential primaries moved into full throttle in January, Kennedy endorsed Illinois Senator Barack Obama for president. After the primaries had all but determined Obama to be the presidential candidate, Kennedy made an emotional appearance at the Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado. Looking somewhat weak, but elated, Kennedy delivered a short but rousing speech to hundreds of delegates.

On January 20, 2009, during Barack Obama’s post-inauguration luncheon at the U.S. Capitol, Kennedy suffered another seizure. Paramedics arrived quickly, and he was escorted to an ambulance by Senators John Kerry, Chris Dodd, and Orrin Hatch. His doctor released a statement saying he believed the incident was a result of “simple fatigue.”

After convalescing in Florida for several weeks, Kennedy called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and said, “Kennedy, reporting for duty.” On the following Monday, he came to the Senate to vote for its version of the economic stimulus package. In a statement released that day, he said, “I returned to the Senate today to do all I can to support our President and his plan to get our country back on track. We face a historic crisis and must act quickly, boldly and responsibly to enable our economy to begin growing again in Massachusetts and across America.”

On August 20, 2009, Kennedy made a sudden request to change Massachusetts state law, allowing for his swift replacement. The note to state leaders asked for an interim senator to be appointed in the case that his seat was suddenly vacated. Current law requires a special election to be held within five moths of the seat vacancy. It was Kennedy’s hope that if his seat were to be unexpectedly empty, another Democratic senator could continue work on new healthcare legislation that Kennedy felt was vital to the country’s progress.

Kennedy’s aides insisted the move had nothing to do with the senator’s health. But several days later, on August 25, 2009, Kennedy’s struggle with brain cancer came to an end. He passed away in the evening at his Cape Cod, Massachusetts, home.

Edward M. Kennedy was the third longest-serving member of the United States Senate in American history. Voters of Massachusetts elected him to the Senate nine times—a record matched by only one other Senator. The scholar Thomas Mann said his time in the Senate was “an amazing and endurable presence. You want to go back to the 19th century to find parallels, but you won‘t find parallels.” President Obama has described his breathtaking span of accomplishment: “For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health, and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.” He fought for and won so many great battles—on voting rights, education, immigration reform, the minimum wage, national service, the nation‘s first major legislation to combat AIDS, and equality for minorities, women, the disabled and gay Americans. He called health care “the cause of my life,” and succeeded in bringing quality and affordable health care for countless Americans, including children, seniors and Americans with disabilities.

Until the end he was working tirelessly to achieve historic national health reform. He was an opponent of the Vietnam War and an early champion of the war‘s refugees. He was a powerful yet lonely voice from the beginning against the invasion of Iraq. He stood for human rights abroad—from Chile to the former Soviet Union — and was a leader in the cause of poverty relief for the poorest nations of Africa and the world. He believed in a strong national defense and he also unceasingly pursued and advanced the work of nuclear arms control.

He was the conscience of his party, and also the Senate‘s greatest master of forging compromise with the other party. Known as the “Lion of the Senate,” Senator Kennedy was widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his commitment to progress and his ability to legislate.