August 26, 2009 7:13 am

‘Liberal lion’ admired by friend and foe

Edward Kennedy, who died on Tuesday night from the consequences of a brain tumour at the age of 77, surely found political and personal redemption in the end. He did not fulfil the ambitions of his dynastic family by becoming president of the United States, as one brother did and as another might have, both victims of the assassin’s bullets, but he became a lion of the US Senate, liked and admired by friend and foe alike.

His legislative record, touching domestic subjects as vital as immigration, healthcare and education, was second to none. As the country drifted to the right over the past 30 years, his was the distinctive and loudest voice of the liberalism born in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Yet, as politics became more bitterly partisan, he worked across party lines, forming alliances with the most improbable opponents, including even his polar opposite, President George W. Bush.

He campaigned as tirelessly as his health would permit for the election of Barack Obama, delivering a typically fiery speech at the Democratic party convention in Denver last summer. It was bitter-sweet, to put it mildly, that he was stricken at the congressional lunch for the new president, a man who has staked out new bi-partisan ground.

His private life moved to a comparable maturity. The once callow, even reckless, young man who seared the name Chappaquiddick into the nation’s memory was transformed into the benign and caring patriarch of a large and impossibly glamorous family that knew more than its share of tragedy and scandal over the years.

In retrospect, it is easy to see the turning point in his political life – his defeat at the hands of incumbent president Jimmy Carter in the race for the Democratic party’s nomination in 1980. Before that, he had been the king-in-waiting, who had seriously thought about running in 1968 and had sat out the next two elections because of Chappaquiddick, in which he was involved in the death by drowning of a young female political aide in the summer of 1969.

But failure to unhorse an unpopular incumbent, who was later soundly beaten by Ronald Reagan in the general election, seems to have forced a sea change. He rededicated his life to the Senate, and to his family, later bolstered by a happy second marriage to Victoria Reggie.

Edward Moore Kennedy was born on February 22, 1932, the youngest of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. His father was a hard-driving Boston financier, and notorious philanderer, whose ambitions for his children knew no bounds. The oldest son was killed in the second world war, but John and Robert responded to the call.

JFK, a senator from Massachusetts since 1952, was elected president in 1960 but killed in Dallas in 1963. RFK was his brother’s attorney general, then a senator from New York, and was the likely Democratic nominee in 1968 before also falling victim to assassination.

Ted followed more tentatively in his brothers’ footsteps. Privately educated at elite New England schools, he was expelled from Harvard for cheating in 1951, enlisted into the army, re-entered Harvard and graduated in 1956. He subsequently earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. In 1958, he married Virginia Joan Bennett, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

In that year, he managed JFK’s successful re-election campaign to the Senate and in 1962 succeeded to his brother’s seat, which had been kept warm for him by a family friend until he reached the minimum age of 30. He was returned seven more times, often with token or no opposition – so powerful was the Kennedy name in Massachusetts.

In 1964, he almost lost his life in a plane crash, having been pulled from the wreckage by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana. Though incapacitated for months, he still made an early mark in the Senate with his work on the landmark immigration act of 1965, which scrapped the 60-year-old quotas heavily tilted towards Europeans wanting to come to the US.

RFK’s death hit him especially hard. The loss of a brother, to whom he was very close was also the loss of a mentor. He thought hard about picking up his torch in 1968, but concluded that he was too young, just a year older than the minimum statutory requirement to become president.

Chappaquiddick changed his political calculus.

After a summer party on the weekend when man first landed on the moon, he drove his car off the bridge linking Chappaquiddick Island with Martha’s Vineyard. He swam to safety but his passenger, the 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, did not escape.

There were suspicions that Kennedy had been drinking and about the nature of the relationship between a married senator and an attractive young woman. He claimed to have tried to rescue her but failed. But he did not report the incident to the police. For that he later received a two-months suspended sentence, a judgment so light that it was widely assumed to have been obtained by Kennedy family influence. Standing by him in court was his pregnant wife, Joan, who had already suffered two miscarriages and was to lose the baby she was then carrying.

The scandal dominated the news for months and its lingering effect induced him not to run for president in 1972 and 1976. An additional factor was surely frequent news reports of his night time carousing and general dissolution.

But four years later he thought the time was ripe. Mr Carter was unpopular and seemed powerless when the US embassy in Tehran was stormed and more than 50 diplomats were taken hostage by the revolutionary regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Senator Kennedy declared his candidacy in the spring.

But he got off to an inauspicious start and never recovered. In a CBS television interview conducted by Roger Mudd, who happened to be an old friend, he appeared unable to answer the simple question of why he wanted to be president. Thereafter, as the hostage crisis went through any number of unpredictable twists and turns, including a failed rescue attempt, Mr Carter’s popularity picked up enough to enable him to win most of the primaries.

Kennedy, however, never conceded and took his fight, and his delegates, all the way to the convention in New York, where he duly lost. But he then delivered a rousing speech under the rubric “the cause goes on”, a paean to liberalism that had the assembled multitude on their feet and roaring approval.

Thereafter he devoted himself to politics and to his family, both equally demanding. Though Catholic, his troubled marriage to Joan, an alcoholic, ended in divorce in 1982. Two of their children, Edward Jr and Kara, suffered from cancer. The death in a plane crash of John F Kennedy Jr, JFK’s oldest son, in 1999, added to the long history of family tragedy, as did the various problems of other relatives. In 1992, the senator married again, to Victoria Reggie, a divorced lawyer with two children of her own.

But the Senate was now his element, and he revelled in it, both when the Democrats were in the majority and when they were not. In 1987, he was the most vocal critic of the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, the conservative jurist and ideologue whom the senate refused to confirm. He also opposed the later successful nominations of David Souter, who ironically was to become one of the more liberal justices, and Clarence Thomas, the African American rightwinger.

His hand appeared to be in virtually every piece of legislation, aided by a staff that was, and is, widely reckoned to be unmatched in talent on Capitol Hill. His principal causes remained immigration, lifting the minimum wage, healthcare, education, the environment and everything to do with the administration of justice.

And for all his reputation as the leading liberal, he made practical friendships and relationships across the aisle – with Senator John McCain of Arizona on immigration reform and with the staunchly conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah on judicial matters.

He even helped steer President Bush’s “no child left behind” education act through the Senate, though he subsequently became critical of its implementation and, in his view, under-funding. That apart, he had little truck with the administration’s overall policies, voting against authorising the war in Iraq and frequently eviscerating everything the justice department did, especially when Alberto Gonzales was attorney general.

It may be that the Kennedys, as a dynastic political family, had been eclipsed by the Clintons and Bushes in the past 20 years, but the power of the name lingered on.

And when Ted Kennedy endorsed Mr Obama, not Hillary Clinton, for the Democratic presidential nomination in the early spring of 2008, there was clearly the sense of the passing of the liberal torch. The mood, at American University in the nation’s capital, was nothing short of electric. Not merely was the senator there, roaring out his endorsement as in days of yore, but so was Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter. The fact that a week later Mrs Clinton beat Mr Obama in the Massachusetts primary on Kennedy turf took a little gloss off the moment, but could not detract from the symbolism of the act.

The announcement in May that the senator was suffering from a malignant brain tumour elicited the kind of national response more associated with an actual demise. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the only senator to have served longer than Mr Kennedy, wept on the chamber’s floor. From all political quarters the sympathy appeared genuine and heartfelt.

It was as if the man who might have – even should have – been king was being treated like royalty at the end of his life. But, then, the closest 20th century America had come to royalty was the Kennedy family, in all its glory, tragedy and strife.

Ted Kennedy proved himself a worthy heir to the name he bore.

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