Congressional Lions: Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy
Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy was one of those public figures that engenders strong emotions. He is loved and hated in almost equal measure by legions of admirers and detractors. To politically liberal partisans, he was a champion of forgotten Americans--people of color, gays, and the poor. He sponsored progressive legislation that touched the lives of untold millions. To his critics, he was a spoiled rich man’s son, a lying, crooked womanizer who broke the rules and the federal budget, a liberal do-gooder who did not deserve the accolades he received. I included Ted Kennedy in my book Congressional Lions: Trailblazing Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History because, love him or hate him, he was among the most prolific legislators in the nation’s history.
Ted Kennedy’s background is well known. He was the youngest son of the multimillionaire businessman and politician Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. The Kennedy family became one of the most prominent and storied political dynasties in American history. Ted’s brother John, 35th President of the United States, fell victim to an assassin’s bullet in 1963. His brother Robert, attorney general during the Kennedy administration, served as a United States senator from New York before he was assassinated while campaigning for president in 1968. Ted Kennedy also was a presidential aspirant, but his well-documented personal failings—including a 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, when a woman riding as a passenger in his automobile drowned after Kennedy accidentally drove off a bridge—destroyed his chances to capture the presidency. Instead, Ted Kennedy earned his reputation in the United States Senate.
He served as a senator from Massachusetts from 1962 until his death in 2009. Known as the “lion of the Senate,” Kennedy authored or co-authored more than 300 major bills during his tenure. He championed numerous liberal political causes, including immigration reform, universal health care, AIDS research, and civil rights legislation. At the time of his death, he was the second longest serving United States senator, and hailed as one of the most effective and influential members of Congress in American history.
For all of his accomplishments as a legislator, Ted was eclipsed by his famous older brothers. John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy became liberal heroes, rendered historically tragic icons by their assassinations, subsequently canonized as great American statesmen. As the surviving heir apparent, Ted Kennedy sought the presidency in 1979, but stumbled when he failed to articulate a compelling reason for pursuing higher office. The truth was that he campaigned for the chief executive’s position because he was a Kennedy, and it was expected that he would recapture the prize that had been lost when John was killed. In any other family, he would have been a shining star, but in the Kennedy clan, Teddy somehow always came off as the “also ran.”
He was born, propitiously enough, on February 22, 1932—George Washington’s 200th birthday, as the ninth child of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In later years, commentators would remark on the father’s outsized ambitions, first for himself, and eventually for his sons. Joe Sr. was a proud, feisty Irish Catholic in a time when WASPs and establishment leaders looked down on anyone outside their social class. Determined to rise up the social, economic, and political ladder, the old man devoted his life to showing all the elites who had disapproved of the poor, unwashed Irish that he could match and even exceed their achievements.
He started by conquering the world of business. Demonstrating his acumen, he played the stock market with great success. He also ran bootleg liquor during prohibition. Fancying himself a star-maker, Joe invested in motion pictures and rubbed elbows with glamorous Hollywood personalities. In at least one case, he rubbed more than elbows, carrying on a long-term affair with the acclaimed actress Gloria Swanson. Rose Kennedy, his wife, knew of her husband’s extracurricular activities, but she never publicly acknowledged his infidelities. She wanted to keep peace in the household and raise her children. Thus, she turned a blind eye to her husband’s philandering, engaging instead in what she called “retail therapy.” Joe and Rose developed an uneasy détente, seldom traveling or spending too much time together as a couple, but always uniting in their desire to protect the family and encourage their children to succeed. Joe even set up a trust fund for each child to ensure that the need to earn a living would not influence their behavior or their career choices.
In a family with three boys ahead of him, young Teddy was never a contender for a lead role. A chubby, affable boy, everyone adored him, but no one expected great things. He was naturally gregarious, and always anxious to please, but he was too far down in the pecking order to merit serious consideration as a political leader.
As with the other Kennedys, Teddy attended boarding schools. Although Joe and Rose adored the children—and Joe was especially attentive when a child was sick or in need of material comforts—they were not warm, doting parents. They were happy to meet every need as long as it did not require their undivided attention. At age 9, Terry found himself shipped off to the Portsmouth Priory, a Catholic boarding school in Rhode Island. He was sent to other schools after Portsmouth Priory—as many as 10 by the time he was 11 years old. He spent the most time at the Fessenden School and the Milton Academy. It was a lonely childhood, but he adapted as well as he could.
In the fall of 1950, the 18-year-old headed off to Harvard University, following in the footsteps of his older brothers. Ted was bright enough to succeed, but he was an indifferent student. He also was an above-average athlete, but even at a young age he had to watch what he ate. He tended to be portly, never a good look in a Kennedy. To make matters worse, at the end of his freshman year, Ted was caught cheating. He had paid another student to take a Spanish examination for him. Expelled from college, he opted to enter the United States Army before reapplying to Harvard.
It was a humiliating episode, but Ted was determined to salvage what he could from his failure. Army life introduced him to a wide variety of people, most of whom he had never encountered owing to his privileged youth. He received no special favors, save one. He performed his fair share of menial jobs as an enlisted man in the army, but Ambassador Kennedy pulled strings to keep his youngest son from heading off to fight in the Korean conflict. Having lost one son to war, Joe did not believe that his family could stand it if another boy died in combat.
In 1953, a thoroughly chastened Ted Kennedy returned to Harvard. Not only was he physically fit from his time in uniform, but he was a more mature, serious student. He still enjoyed football, sailing, and impressing pretty girls, but he began to think about a future in politics. After he graduated from college in 1956, he traveled widely to learn something of the world, as others in the family had done at a similar age.
He enrolled in the University of Virginia Law School in 1956, the same law school that Bobby had attended. He still enjoyed wild nights of partying, but Ted also displayed a genuine knack for debate. During his second year, he and a partner won the moot court competition, besting 50 other teams. He graduated in 1959.
During his time in law school, Ted met a young woman, Joan Bennett, his sister Jean’s friend. Thirteen months later, on November 29, 1958, Ted and Joan were married. They later admitted that they did not know each other very well. Still, they resolved to struggle through the marriage and make it work. They eventually had three children before divorcing after 25 years together. In the end, Joan’s alcoholism and Ted’s serial infidelity proved to be more than they could bear. Ted remarried in 1992.
Ted’s introduction to politics occurred in 1958, when his brother, John, ran for reelection to the United States Senate. Old Joe Kennedy insisted that the 26-year-old Ted manage the campaign. It might have been a disastrous choice, but instead the assignment revealed the young man’s natural political gifts. Ted genuinely enjoyed politics, and he threw himself into the campaign with gusto. He seemed especially adept at hand-shaking and chatting with voters. John and Bobby Kennedy suffered through campaigns because they were necessary chores in amassing political power, but they were not naturally attracted to retail politics. Ted, however, appeared to revel in the give-and-take that occurred on the campaign trail. Joe Kennedy recognized that his youngest son, for all of his deficiencies, was the most gifted and natural politician of the bunch.
A toast between Ted and brother John following the 1958 victory hinted at the Kennedys’ relentless ambitions. Raising a glass to the newly reelected senator, Ted joked, “Here’s to 1960, Mr. President—if you can make it.” Without hesitating, John Kennedy raised his glass. “And here’s to 1962, Senator Kennedy—If you can make it.”
Following the 1960 presidential election, as John headed for Washington, D.C., to step into the presidency and brother Bobby became the attorney general, Ted’s future was unsettled. He contemplated running for John’s vacated Senate seat, but he would not turn 30 years old until February 1962, and the United States Constitution required officeholders to be at least that age before entering the Senate. He had spent time in the western states in 1960, and initially thought he might settle in New Mexico or a similar Democratic-leaning state to begin his own independent political career. After mulling it over, he accepted a position as an assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, acquiring practical legal experience as he reflected on a path forward.
Ambassador Kennedy saw a path forward, and he acted decisively. He persuaded Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo to appoint Ben A. Smith III, a close Kennedy family friend, to the Senate seat until a special election could be held in November 1962. Detractors lambasted the decision, arguing that Smith was little more than a seat warmer who would serve without distinction until the youngest Kennedy reached the requisite age to step into a ready-made political career. It was difficult to argue with such logic. In any case, Ted realized that he could not stray far from his family, and so he eventually announced his candidacy for the Senate.
He knew that he would be criticized, but he resolved to persevere. As he embarked on his campaign in the spring of 1962, he predictably encountered withering criticism. A legion of critics charged that Ted was inexperienced and had not paid sufficient dues to become a United States senator. His only asset was his famous last name. New York Times columnist James Reston observed that “any way you look at it, this adventure [Ted Kennedy’s candidacy] promises to be an embarrassment to the President. If Teddy wins, it will inevitably be said that the President put him over, even if this President doesn’t say a word on his behalf, and if he loses, it will be regarded as a rebuke to the Kennedys for overreaching themselves.” Reflecting what many detractors had already concluded, Reston wrote that “One Kennedy is a triumph, two Kennedys at the same time are a miracle, but three could easily be regarded by many voters as an invasion.”
Ted was not surprised when the Harvard cheating incident emerged in the newspapers. The episode had occurred more than a decade earlier, but it still generated headlines. Even progressive intellectuals who had supported John F. Kennedy’s political career abandoned the younger brother when they saw the young man as a pale reflection of his famous sibling. JFK intervened to ask the editor of the Boston Globe to soften the cheating story, which the editor did, but most news outlets gleefully took the young man to task. The campaign appeared to be in grave danger.
“Jesus, we’re having more fucking trouble with this than we did with the Bay of Pigs,” President Kennedy remarked to national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean. “Yes, and with just about the same results,” Bundy wryly agreed.
For all the jokes and cutting remarks about his youth, inexperience, and family connections, Ted Kennedy handily won the November 1962 election. It might have been called a battle of the politically well-connected. His Republican opponent was George C. Lodge, son of a former United States senator from Massachusetts who lost his seat to John K. Kennedy in 1952. A third candidate, independent H. Stuart Hughes, was the grandson of former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the 1916 Republican presidential nominee. When the final votes were tallied, Kennedy won 548,181 votes to 311,328 for Lodge, and 21,401 for Hughes.
Ted entered the Senate determined to carve out a place for himself, but he also knew that he would have to learn the rules of procedure and master the personalities of his colleagues, many of whom were suspicious of his suitability for the position as well as his motives. He spent much of 1963 avoiding the spotlight, acting the part of the junior senator with a lot to learn. He eschewed opportunities to appear before the national press corps, appearing instead before Massachusetts media outlets and presenting a picture of the self-effacing young man anxious to fashion himself into a master legislator. He knew that many citizens distrusted him as a callow young recipient of unearned privilege, and so he set out to change that narrative. Hard work became his solace. In his district offices, he also labored to develop a constituent-services operation second to none.
On November 22, 1963, Ted was seated on the dais of the Senate, presiding over Friday afternoon business. It was customary for junior legislators to preside over a floor session when the Senate handled prosaic matters. As he worked, a press aide rushed on to the floor to tell the senator that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Ashen-faced, Ted ran to find a telephone somewhere on Capitol Hill. The lines were down. Fearing that his wife, Joan, would learn the news from a reporter, he jumped into a car with his aides and raced home. Joan was not there. Frantic, he scoured the neighborhood to find a working telephone. When he finally reached brother Bobby, he learned the terrible news. President Kennedy was dead.
The duty to inform their parents fell to Ted, but the original telephone no longer worked. When he finally found another working telephone, he discovered that his mother already knew about Dallas. His father, however, remained oblivious to the news. Old Joe Kennedy, immobilized because of a severe stroke, was a shell of his former self. His family worried about his reaction when he learned of John Kennedy’s assassination. The staff at the family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, unplugged the television sets and kept Joe away from news programs until Ted could fly up and tell the father about his son’s death.
Standing before the wheelchair-bound patriarch, Ted broke down. “There’s been a bad accident,” he said. “The president has been hurt badly. As a matter of fact, he died.” Ted collapsed at his father’s feet while tears streamed down the old man’s face.
John F. Kennedy’s death profoundly changed the nation, and the world. It changed the Kennedy family as well. Bobby Kennedy now stepped up as the acknowledged leader of the clan. Happy-go-lucky Ted, now a United States senator, felt not nearly as happy or as lucky as he had in previous years. It was difficult not to believe that the family was somehow cursed.
The curse seemed to grow when Ted was seriously injured in a plane crash on June 19, 1964. He was flying from Washington, D.C., to a Massachusetts Democratic Party event where he would be nominated as the party’s Senate candidate in the fall election. Thick fog and bad weather plagued the flight, which included Indiana Senator Birch Bayh and his wife as well as the plane’s pilot and Kennedy’s aide, Ed Moss. The aircraft clipped a tree just short of the runway in Westfield, Massachusetts, crashing into a grove of trees. Then pilot died, and Moss was mortally wounded. The Bayhs made it out of the plane without serious injuries, but Ted severely injured his back. He would be sidelined in the hospital and in a rehabilitation facility for months, although he still won reelection in November 1964.
Worse was yet to come. Elected to the Senate at the same time that Ted cruised to victory in 1964, brother Bobby grew much closer to his younger sibling than he had been in previous years. With Bobby representing New York and Ted representing Massachusetts, the brothers carried on the tradition established by their father and realized by their older brother. Throughout the 1960s, the pressure on Bobby to campaign for the presidency was intense. He believed that his time had come in 1968. Yet tragedy struck the Kennedys again. In the early morning hours of June 5, 1968, shortly after winning the California Democratic presidential primary, Bobby was shot by a gunman in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the following day.
Ted was devastated. The Kennedys had endured more than their share of heartache and pain, yet the tragedy appeared to be never-ending. It was played out in the public eye, with friend and foe alike watching and judging the survivors’ actions. And now, with Bobby gone, the weight of the family’s expectations was crushing. Ted was no longer a junior senator learning the ropes and laboring in the shadow of a more accomplished family member. He was the man in charge of the family now.
He fashioned himself into an extraordinary lawmaker in the decades that followed, but, as always, it was never quite good enough for the Kennedys. He was expected to grasp the brass ring at some point, ascending into the presidency to redeem the family name and fulfill its legacy. By the time Bobby died, it was too late for Ted to enter the 1968 race, but many Democratic Party faithful set their sights on 1972. Within four years, ideally the youngest Kennedy would have settled into his role as the family representative and savior.
The year after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, however, Ted became embroiled in a scandal that would taint his name forever after. On July 18, 1969, he attended a party on remote Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It was a small, deserted isle with no bars, restaurants, or traffic lights. Few people lived permanently on the island, and fewer still would ever seek it out. A group of Bobby Kennedy’s former staffers had scheduled a reunion in a small house rented by a Kennedy cousin for the week. The guest list was exclusive, consisting of six young women, all in their twenties, dubbed the “boiler room girls” because of their campaign work in a windowless room, as well as six older men affiliated with the Kennedys. “It was almost like war veterans getting together,” one observer recalled. The group had assembled on several previous occasions to recall wistfully their work on behalf of the martyred Bobby Kennedy.
One of the young women was 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a long-time staff assistant to Bobby Kennedy. By all accounts, she seldom drank alcohol and was not known to be promiscuous. In any case, sometime around 11:15 p.m. that night, as the get-together was in full swing, she slipped out of the house with Ted Kennedy without telling anyone where she was going. Ted later testified that she had asked for a ride back to her hotel, which was strange. She had arrived at the house earlier in the day with the other women in a car driven by a Kennedy friend. Moreover, she departed from the house without her purse or her hotel room key. Ted had arrived on the island driven by his long-time chauffeur, a 63-year-old man who typically escorted the senator wherever he needed to go. In fact, Ted Kennedy rarely drove anywhere.
On this evening, though, he was behind the wheel of his black Oldsmobile. To leave the island, he needed to drive straight to a ferry boat that would whisk the car and its occupants across a narrow body of water to the mainland. Instead of heading straight toward the ferry, however, Ted turned right off the main road and drove along a dirt road. When he encountered a small wooden bridge and attempted to cross, the car slid into the water and capsized.
Ted and his passenger sank to the bottom of a tidal pond. The senator somehow escaped from the submerged automobile, but Kopechne did not. She drowned. Ted testified that he dived to the car numerous times, but he could not reach Mary Jo.
He alerted two friends on the island, but they, too, were unable to rescue the car’s passenger. Ted instructed the men to return to the party and deal with the guests while he reported the incident to the police. Instead, he swam to the mainland, returned to his hotel room, and crawled into bed. Nine hours passed from the time of the accident until he notified the police. In the interim, he called family friends and advisers even as the car was discovered and the authorities arrived to investigate. He was later charged with leaving the scene of the accident and his license was suspended. An autopsy was never performed on Kopechne’s body, and the police arguably conducted a less-than-thorough investigation. A subsequent inquest shed little light on the matter. It appeared that Ted Kennedy, the head of an affluent, privileged clan, simply walked away from the episode with minimal inconvenience.
Speculation about what happened dogged Ted Kennedy for the rest of his life. Why did he leave with Mary Jo Kopechne that night? How could he possibly had turned off the main road if the ferry was his destination? Why did he wait so long to call the police? Had he been drinking? He never satisfactorily answered those questions. To this day, rumors and innuendo about Chappaquiddick swirl and refuse to die.
Although Ted Kennedy would again seek the Democratic presidential nomination, most notably in 1980, the Chappaquiddick incident effectively ended any realistic bid for the White House. Kennedy, a shrewd political operative, surely knew that he has hobbled himself. No man who had behaved as he behaved that night could have expected to continue his upward trajectory in politics.
Ted had been serving as the Democratic whip in the Senate, a leadership position that elevated his standing among his party, but he lost the position to West Virginia’s Robert Byrd in January 1971. Bitterly disappointed at what he viewed as a rebuke, he threw himself into the drudgery of committee work. If there was a silver lining to this dark cloud, it was that Ted Kennedy eventually became known as a workhorse who excelled in mastering details in committee, often the most important part of the legislative process.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he came to oppose the Vietnam War, although he announced his opposition late in the game, calling the conflict a “monstrous outrage.” It was a difficult position to defend because his brother John had done much to commit the United States to the war effort in the early years of the decade. Always independent-minded when it came to legislating, Kennedy refused to make grand gestures for the sake of publicity, as when his Senate colleagues signed open letters criticizing the war. He preferred to concentrate on enacting bills to provide relief for returning veterans and care for prisoners of war.
Being a Kennedy, it was not enough to be a legislative lion. He must try one last time to capture the top prize. In 1979, he set his sights on the presidency yet again. To succeed, he would have to challenge his party’s standard-bearer, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, the incumbent president.
The campaign never recovered from an early stumble. CBS news correspondent Roger Mudd met with the senator to tape a television interview on October 12, 1979. The newsman posed what seemed to be a boilerplate question: “Why do you want to be president?” In most instances, such an innocuous query would allow a candidate to pontificate at length on his platform and his qualifications for the position.
Ted Kennedy must have known that such a question would be asked. He had spent much of his adult life contemplating a run for the presidency. Yet his response could only be described as hesitant and incoherent. “Well, I’m—were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country that it is—has more natural resources than any nation of the world, has the greatest educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for innovation in the world and the greatest political system in the world.” After fumbling his way through the response for another minute or so, Kennedy gave up. It was a cringe-worthy moment that followed him throughout the campaign.
It was only when he appeared at the Democratic National Convention on August 12, 1980, to concede defeat to Carter that Ted captured some of the old fire. In one of his most famous speeches, Kennedy unapologetically defended the old-time political liberalism of the party that had seen his brothers rise to astronomical heights. Urging his listeners to remember that government could be a potent instrument for improving people’s lives, he looked to the future. “And someday,” he vowed, “long after this convention, long after the signs come down and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again.”
It was almost possible to believe that the ideals of John and Bobby Kennedy still lived on in their younger sibling. Ted Kennedy was at his rhetorical best when he concluded the speech. “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” he lamented. “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.” Jimmy Carter said of the “dream shall never die” oration that it was “one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard.”
Of course, for all the accolades he earned from the 1980 convention, Ted Kennedy was not, and never would be, his party’s nominee. In fact, after 1980, he never again seriously entertained another White House bid. Every four years he would feel the old familiar urge, but as the years flew by, while he grew older and fatter, Teddy Kennedy realized that he was a figure from the past. The Democrats needed to look to the future.
And so he settled into a Senate career that became the Kennedy family’s most enduring legacy. With the passing years, he grew into his role as a master legislator, championing measures on civil rights, deregulation of the trucking and airline industries, and health care, among many other causes. Health care was a favorite topic. Ted supported national health insurance program that would guarantee coverage for every American. Although he was not able to accomplish that ambitious goal, he was instrumental in passing notable legislation. He co-authored a measure to create health maintenance organizations, or HMOs. He also successfully pushed through a law strengthening the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program.
Ted remained unabashedly liberal even as that ideology passed out of favor during the late 1970s. He believed that government had a positive role to play in people’s lives, especially the historically disenfranchised, and that social justice and economic opportunity were crucial goals. He pushed for 18-year-olds to have the right to vote. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, he championed campaign finance reform. Having supported the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ted continually urged renewal of the statute. He pushed for fair housing legislation, stricter environmental laws, and creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to “assure safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”
His support for socially progressive legislation was the stuff of legend, leading to a plethora of significant laws, including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the National Cancer Act of 1971, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) health insurance provision, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Mental Health Parity Act, the S-CHIP children’s health program, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, expanding the AmeriCorps program.
In 2008, Ted famously endorsed Illinois Senator Barack Obama for the presidency, a move that raised some eyebrows among the party elite. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, could legitimately claim close ties with the Kennedys. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had fashioned his political career after John F. Kennedy, his boyhood hero. The Clintons and the Kennedys had socialized together numerous times throughout the years. After Bill Clinton delivered a speech in 2008 that was widely interpreted as racially-tinged, however, Ted vacillated about whether he should declare his support for Hillary. He initially remained on the sidelines until he decided that Obama represented a new generation of leadership. Comparing the dynamic young candidate to his deceased brothers, Ted endorsed Obama in no uncertain terms. In return, the candidate agreed that legislation promoting universal health care for all Americans would be a top priority if he were elected.
As Obama campaigned for the White House, Ted’s health took a turn for the worse. He delivered several speeches on Obama’s behalf—and he intended to deliver many more—but his strength and energy were waning. On May 17, 2008, he suffered a seizure while resting at his Hyannis Port home. Rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, Ted received terrible news. He was suffering from a malignant brain tumor. In typical Kennedy fashion, he stoically accepted his fate. He underwent brain surgery and chemotherapy to combat the disease as aggressively as possible. Despite these proactive measures, the prognosis was grim: He could expect to live for a year or two, perhaps less.
In the last act of his public life, on August 25, 2008, he appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. He was visibly ill and in pain, but he was determined, as any Kennedy would be, to carry on no matter what. Introduced by his niece, Caroline Kennedy, Ted received thunderous applause.
When the ovation died down, he addressed the delegates and the television audience. “So many of you have been with me in the happiest days and the hardest days. Together we have known success and seen setbacks, victory and defeat.” His wrinkled face and white hair served as visual reminders that Ted Kennedy’s happiest days were behind him, and the hardest days might lie ahead. Unsteady on his feet, his address lasted a scant seven minutes, but it included echoes of his oratorical achievements from earlier times: “Yes, we are all Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.”
Recalling his brother’s famous 1961 inaugural address as well as his own 1980 convention speech, he ended eloquently. “And this November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”
Ted Kennedy lived to see Barack Obama inaugurated as the first black president of the United States on January 20, 2009, but his health was failing precipitously. He suffered a seizure during a luncheon immediately following the swearing-in ceremony. For the next seven months, he fought the cancer that ate away at him. He died at his home in Hyannis Port on August 25, 2009, a year to the day after his last convention speech.
He was memorialized by Democrats and Republicans alike, but perhaps the most moving tribute came from his son, Ted Jr. In 1973, when Ted Jr. was 12 years old, doctors diagnosed bone cancer in the boy’s right leg. It was surgically amputated. That winter, his father prodded the boy to grab his sled and ride it down a hill. “I can’t do this,” Ted Jr. said. His father told him not to worry; together they would climb the hill no matter how long it took. Slowly, they made their way to the top. It was a lesson that Ted Jr. never forgot. No matter how difficult a chore, it could be conquered. Even if a person failed, he must try again, for, as Ted Jr. recalled, “my father believed in redemption. And he never surrendered.”
Edward M. Kennedy was redeemed, to some extent, in death as he had not been in life. He was remembered as the only member of an illustrious family to leave behind a rich legislative legacy stretching across many decades. Although he was the youngest Kennedy of his generation and a man plagued by scandals and controversy, his accomplishments were monumental.