There was a time 40 years ago, right after the assassination of his brother Robert, when it looked like Edward Kennedy would become President someday by right of succession. The Kennedy curse, the one that had seen all three of his brothers cut down in their prime, had created for him a sort of Kennedy prerogative, or at least the illusion of one, an inevitable claim on the White House. For years he seemed like a man simply waiting for the right moment to take what everybody knew was coming his way.
Everybody was wrong. Ted Kennedy would never reach the White House. His weaknesses – and the long shadow of Chappaquiddick – were an obstacle that even his strengths couldn’t overcome. But his failure to get to the presidency opened the way to the true fulfillment of his gifts, which was to become one of the greatest legislators in American history. When their White House years are over, most Presidents set off on the long aftermath of themselves. They give lectures, write books, play golf and make money. Jimmy Carter even won a Nobel Prize. But every one of them would tell you that elder-statesmanship is no substitute for real power. (See pictures of Ted Kennedy’s life and times.)
Because Kennedy never made it to the finish line, he never had to endure a post-presidential twilight. Instead, by the time of his death on Aug. 25 in Hyannis Port at the age of 77, he had 46 working years in Congress, time enough to leave his imprint on everything from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, a law that expands support for national community-service programs. Over the years, Kennedy was a force behind the Freedom of Information Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. He helped Soviet dissidents and fought apartheid. Above all, he conducted a four-decade crusade for universal health coverage, a poignant one toward the end as the country watched a struggle with a brain tumor. But along the way, he vastly expanded the network of neighborhood clinics, virtually invented the COBRA system for portable insurance and helped create the laws that provide Medicare prescriptions and family leave. (See a Kennedy family photo album.)
And for most of that time, he went forward against great odds, the voice of progressivism in a conservative age. When people were getting tired of hearing about racism or the poor or the decay of American cities, he kept talking. When liberalism was flickering, there was Kennedy, holding the torch, insisting that “we can light those beacon fires again.” In the last year of his life, with the Inauguration of Barack Obama, he had the satisfaction of seeing a big part of that dream fulfilled. In early 2008, when Obama had just begun to capture the public imagination, Kennedy bucked the party establishment. Just before Super Tuesday, the venerable Senator from Massachusetts enthusiastically endorsed the young Senator from Illinois, helping propel Obama to the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House.
So does it matter that Kennedy never made it to the presidency? Any number of mere Presidents have been pretty much forgotten. But as the Romans understood, there can be Emperors of no consequence – and Senators whose legacies are carved in stone.
Rose Kennedy wanted a family. Joe Kennedy wanted a dynasty. They both got what they wanted, but only for a time. Joe had made a fortune in film production, liquor, real estate and stocks. But he wasn’t just a businessman. In the scope of his ambitions and schemes, he was something out of Shakespeare. He married Rose in 1914, and as their children arrived, he formed the conviction not only that the boys belonged in public life but that one of them, maybe more than one, should be President of the United States. (See TIME’s complete Ted Kennedy coverage.)
This was the atmosphere that Ted was born into on Feb. 22, 1932 – the last of the nine Kennedy children. But from the start, he had three elder brothers as a buffer between himself and the worst of the old man’s ambition for his sons. All the same, he grew up at some distance from his parents. Over the years, Joe and Rose had become increasingly estranged. Overweight and lonely, Ted was shuttled through a succession of boarding and day schools, but he grew into an athletic, good-looking teenager, one who ambled into Harvard, where Jack and Bobby had gone before him.
He hadn’t been at Harvard long before he screwed up in a way that would come back to haunt him years later. In his freshman year, Kennedy was having trouble with a Spanish class. There was a test coming up, and he needed to do well in order to be eligible to play varsity football the next year. With the encouragement of some of his buddies, Kennedy recruited a friend who was good at Spanish to take the exam in his place. The scheme backfired. The surrogate was caught, and both boys were expelled, though Harvard offered them the opportunity to be readmitted later if they showed evidence of “constructive and responsive citizenship.”
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Kennedy’s abrupt next move was to join the Army, which sent him to Georgia to be trained as a military police officer and then, thanks to his father’s intervention, to Paris to serve as an honor guard at NATO headquarters. In the fall of 1953, he was readmitted to Harvard, where he majored in government. After graduation, he went on to study law at the University of Virginia. He was in law school when he met Joan Bennett, a senior at Manhattanville College, a small Catholic school in New York State that his mother and two of his sisters had attended. Not much more than a year after they first met, they married. Over the next nine years, they had three children: Kara, Edward Jr. and Patrick. (Joan also suffered three miscarriages.) But by 1982, the combination of her prolonged struggle with alcohol and his infidelities led them to divorce. Joan often found herself burdened by the effort required to fill the role of a Kennedy wife. Years later, sounding a bit like Princess Diana, she told an interviewer, “I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into.”
What she had gotten into was the Kennedys, a family whose family business was politics. Ted was still in law school when he was made campaign manager for Jack’s 1958 bid for a second term as Senator. Though the real decision-making was left to seasoned Kennedy operatives, the campaign put Ted in the field constantly to meet and greet voters. It prepared him for a future, coming soon, in which he would be the candidate. When Jack was elected to the White House in 1960, there were four years remaining in his Senate term. The family wanted Ted to succeed him, but at 28, he was two years below the minimum age for the Senate. So a Kennedy loyalist was chosen to fill the seat for a couple of years while Ted used the time to make himself plausible to the state’s voters as a man they should send to Washington. With Jack’s help, he attached himself to a Senate fact-finding trip to Africa. He toured Latin America, Israel and Berlin. On Election Day, with 54% of the vote, Kennedy beat George Cabot Lodge, a descendant of the Waspiest of New England political dynasties. (Read “Kennedy’s Absence Felt on Health-Care Reform.”)
Ted had been in the Senate for less than a year when JFK went to Dallas the day Lee Harvey Oswald was lying in wait. Jack’s death was more than a personal tragedy for Ted. It was a watershed. It put him one step closer to assuming the Kennedy burden, the perennial quest for the heights. It marked the beginning of his transformation into a true public figure. As a first measure, Ted devoted himself to ensuring the passage of legislation that had been important to his brother, especially the civil rights bill JFK introduced the summer before his death. On June 19, Ted added his vote to the 73-to-27 majority that turned that bill into the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then he headed to the airport to board a private plane that was to take him to the state Democratic Party convention in Springfield, Mass. But as the plane made its descent into a fogbound Springfield airport, it struck a row of trees and somersaulted across an orchard. The pilot, Ed Zimny, died at the scene. A Kennedy aide, Ed Moss, died a few hours later. Indiana Senator Birch Bayh and his wife Marvella, who were also on board, survived with minor injuries. Kennedy suffered a broken back and a collapsed lung.
What followed was a five-month recovery, mostly spent immobilized in a hospital bed, and a lifetime of back pain. Yet when he returned to the Senate the following year, Kennedy set to work with the energy that comes to a man who gets a second chance at life. It wasn’t long before Ted scored a victory on another of Jack’s unrealized goals, the reform of immigration quotas to allow more arrivals from nations outside Northern Europe. One year later, he secured federal support for neighborhood clinics, marking the first time he applied himself to the problem of health care, the signature issue of his public life. (Read “Eunice Kennedy Shriver Dies at 88.”)
By 1967, Kennedy had also begun to speak out against the Vietnam War. Exasperation about Vietnam was one of the main reasons his brother Robert decided to seek the presidency in 1968. Then Bobby was shot down as well. His death was a crucial moment of recognition for Ted that the burden of the Kennedy legacy was now his to shoulder. For years he had been the Prince Hal of the Kennedy dynasty, the wayward son who would just as soon not inherit the kingdom. But now, at 36, he was the last of the line. There was no one else.
So when Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in the fall, Ted instantly became liberalism’s last, best hope. There were people who thought he lacked Jack’s intellect or Bobby’s passion, that all his life he had merely trawled in their wake. But in his first speech after Bobby’s death, he was already sounding the cry that would be the great theme of his political life: “Like my brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard. Sustained by the memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, to excellence, to courage, that distinguished their lives.” (See pictures of TIME’s coverage of Watergate.)
This was the moment when everyone assumed that the presidency would someday be his for the asking. But it was only a moment. On July 18, 1969, Kennedy hosted a reunion for six women who had worked at the center of Bobby’s presidential campaign. The gathering took place in a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, just off Martha’s Vineyard. Around 11:15 that night, Kennedy asked his driver for the keys to his Oldsmobile so that he could leave the party with Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, a former aide to his brother. According to testimony he gave later at a judge’s inquest, he took a wrong turn onto an unlit dirt road and then across a small, unrailed wooden bridge. His car went over the side of the bridge and landed upside down in the water. Kennedy managed to escape. Kopechne did not.
There are questions about Chappaquiddick that have never been closed. Where was Kennedy going with Kopechne at that late hour? (At the inquest in January, he claimed that he was taking her back to her hotel in Edgartown.) Why did he wait until the following morning, 10 hours later, to report the accident to the police? (He said it was because he had been in a state of shock and confusion.) Was the real reason for delaying the report that at the time of the accident he was drunk? (He insisted he was not.) At the inquest, he testified that after escaping from the car, he dived back into the water seven or eight times in a vain attempt to free Kopechne. Then he made the mile-and-a-half walk back to the cottage, where the party was still underway, collected two male friends and returned with them to the car, where they also attempted to free Kopechne. When that proved impossible, Kennedy decided to return to his hotel across the water in Edgartown. But instead of summoning the night ferry, he chose to swim 500 feet across the bay. (Read ” Mary Jo Kopechne: The Girl Next Door.”)
The inquest concluded that Kennedy had lied when he said he was taking Kopechne back to Edgartown. It also ruled that his “negligent driving” appeared to have contributed to her death. By the time the inquest was complete, Kennedy had already entered a guilty plea to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence. But it would be truer to say he was sentenced to life under the cloud of Chappaquiddick.
Had it not been for that night, he almost certainly would have been a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. He stayed on the sidelines that year and in 1976 as well, even though in the aftermath of Watergate, that looked to be a winning year for the Democrats. It would be, but for Jimmy Carter.
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Kennedy found new issues to throw himself into. In 1970 he introduced his first bill to establish a system of universal health-care coverage. He confounded people who thought of him as a doctrinaire liberal by pushing for airline deregulation and for required sentencing of convicted criminals. He promoted arms-control talks with the Soviet Union but also devoted himself to the cause of Soviet dissidents and would-be Jewish ÉmigrÉs.
It was Chappaquiddick as much as anything else that sabotaged his most serious attempt at the White House: his fight in 1980 to push Carter aside. Almost three decades later, that campaign is still a bit of a puzzle. His ideological differences with Carter never seemed great enough to justify a challenge to a sitting President of his own party. His main complaint was that Carter wasn’t moving forward fast enough on health care, “the great unfinished business on the agenda of the Democratic Party,” as he called it. In a televised interview on Nov. 4, 1979, just three days before he would launch his campaign, Kennedy gave CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd a notoriously rambling answer to the simple question “Why do you want to be President?” The man who had spent years on a trajectory to the White House still couldn’t say exactly why. (Read “Could He Win in 72 Despite Chappaquiddick?”)
In the end, Kennedy won 10 primaries. Carter took 24, then sailed into the propellers of Ronald Reagan in the fall. But that failed campaign liberated Kennedy. He gave the best speech of his life at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, the speech of a man who had no intention of exiting the public stage. Because the White House was never again a serious option for him, he was free to concentrate once and for all on legislating.
It was the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, and the Republicans had just retaken the Senate – not an easy time to be the torchbearer for liberalism. But Kennedy assumed the role gladly. He became not only a dogged defender of the faith but also an even more adept player of the congressional game. In the ’80s, he teamed repeatedly with the unlikeliest of allies, conservative Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. It was Hatch and Kennedy who got the first major AIDS legislation passed in 1988, a 1 billion spending measure for treatment, education and research. Two years later, they pushed through the Ryan White CARE Act to assist people with HIV who lack sufficient health-care coverage. But if Kennedy knew how to play ball with the other side, he also knew how to play hardball. When Reagan tried to put Robert Bork on the Supreme Court, it was Kennedy who led the ferocious and ultimately successful liberal opposition. (Read “The All-American President: Ronald Wilson Reagan.”)
Kennedy wasn’t nearly as prominent in the next major battle over a court seat, the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas by George H.W. Bush. Even in the best of times, Kennedy’s reputation for womanizing would have made it awkward for him to sit in judgment when Thomas was accused by Anita Hill of sexual harassment. But the Senate hearings on Thomas started at a particularly bad moment for Kennedy, just months after one of the messiest episodes in his public life. In March, while visiting the family compound in Palm Beach, Fla., Kennedy had roused his son Patrick and his nephew William Kennedy Smith out of bed so they could join him for drinks at a local bar. Smith returned to the compound that night with a young woman who would later accuse him of raping her. He was eventually acquitted after a nationally televised trial in which Kennedy was called as a witness. But the image of the capering Senator leading two younger men out to play reawakened all the old misgivings about Kennedy, women and alcohol. The man who had once been Prince Hal, the reluctant heir to the throne, was in danger of turning into Falstaff, the aging reprobate.
Kennedy pulled himself back from that brink. In the summer of the same year, a decade after his divorce from Joan, Kennedy re-encountered Victoria Reggie, a 37-year-old lawyer and gun-safety advocate who had briefly been an intern in his Senate office. Now she lived in Washington with her two children from a previous marriage. Soon they were dating, and a year later they were married. The new marriage transformed Kennedy, giving him a feeling of contentment and stability he had not enjoyed for years. It was a newly energized Kennedy who moved on to the legislative accomplishments of the ’90s, like the Family and Medical Leave Act. When the Republicans retook Congress in 1994, it was Kennedy who would push Bill Clinton from the left when Clinton’s old soul mates from the Democratic Leadership Council were urging him to move right. “The last thing this country needs,” he said then, “is two Republican Parties.” (See pictures of Bill Clinton’s North Korea rescue mission.)
Yet when the next President turned out to be a Republican, Kennedy still found a way to work with him on shared goals. Kennedy spearheaded the effort to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, a priority for George W. Bush. But they later parted ways over what Kennedy felt was Bush’s failure to adequately fund the program. And on other issues, there could be no common ground. In 2002, Kennedy was one of the 23 Senators who voted against authorizing the Iraq war. Years later, he would call it the “best vote” he ever cast in the Senate.
But by that time, there had been a lot of good votes – votes that left the country a changed place and a better one. Nobody talks about Camelot anymore. They struck the scenery long ago. Without Ted, the Kennedy legacy would be mostly beautiful afterglow, just mood music and high rhetoric. More than either of his brothers, he took the mythology and shaped it into something real and enduring.
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.” That was almost 50 years ago. Neither of them knew then in just what ways that prophecy might turn out to be true.
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