The "careless rich." at times in his life, Edward M. Kennedy seemed to embody the type. Like many scions of wealth, he did not carry money—other people had to pick up the bill. If he drove too fast, there was someone to pay, or fix, the ticket. He was, after all, a Kennedy—"the most exclusive club in the world," the proud patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, liked to proclaim. Kennedys, including Teddy Kennedy, could come off as entitled to the point of irresponsibility, certainly in their messy personal lives.
And yet, Edward Kennedy, perhaps more than any United States senator in the past half century, cared about the poor and dispossessed. Though he was relentlessly mocked by the right as a tax-and-spend liberal, he kept the faith. "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," he said in his most famous speech, at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, and he stayed true to his words.
He was hardly the first rich person to care. Oblige has gone with noblesse for ages; Franklin Roosevelt, creator of the New Deal, was a rich aristocrat. But there was a seriousness, a doggedness, to Kennedy. He was no dilettante, no limousine liberal. He was a prodigious worker, the strongest force in the government for women's rights and health care, civil rights and immigration, the rights of the disabled and education. He was effective: in the Senate, to get something done, you went to Ted Kennedy.
He was, in some sense, fulfilling his family duty. The Kennedys have been almost a sovereign state: as a little boy, Teddy took his first communion from the pope. It was his destiny to do the work of the Last Son, to be honored as the "Last Lion," as he was called in his most recent biography, a thorough and fair-minded job by the staff of The Boston Globe. At one level, his story is a familiar one to the many students of Kennedyana, a tale of sin and redemption, triumph and tragedy. But like all good human stories, his is not so easily reduced to cliché. Kennedy's saga is at once more complicated and more intriguing. And it begins with a personal mystery: how someone born into a life of wealth and privilege, into a family that defined itself by its greatness, could be made to feel like a nonentity.
In the dining room of the Kennedy mansion in Bronxville, N.Y. (where Joe Kennedy had moved to escape the anti-Catholic prejudice of Boston), there was a large mahogany table. There was room at the table for Joe and his wife, Rose, their nine children, and various nuns and family retainers. At the head sat the patriarch and his three eldest children—Joe Jr., John, and Kathleen. They were "the golden trio"; they carried the father's ambitions for success and acceptance by the Protestant elite. During dinner, Joe would quiz them on world events and invite sharp, teasing banter. Farther down the table sat three more daughters and Robert, as well as mother Rose. Young Bobby was defined by his almost desperate efforts to get the attention of his father and glamorous siblings, status he eventually achieved by playing the role of tough guy, willing to do the nasty jobs and allow the others to float above.
The last born, Edward, wasn't even at the dining-room table. As a little boy, far younger than his older siblings, he was relegated to an alcove off to the side, often with his next-youngest sibling, Jean, and an assigned older sibling. Joe Kennedy liked to point out Edward's auspicious start: he was born on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of the first president's birth. Instead of naming him after Washington, though, the infant was named after one of the retainers, Edward Moore—a servant, in effect. In a family that took itself seriously, little Teddy seemed to be a bit of a joke—an overweight boy called "Biscuits and Muffins" and "Fat Stuff" by his siblings.
He dealt with the put-downs by playing the clown. While Bobby brooded—Jack called him "Black Robert"—Teddy was jolly, sunny, a kidder. He kept any hurt well concealed. In a family of overachievers, he was regarded with low expectations, which he met. As a freshman at Harvard, he was tossed out for two years for cheating on a Spanish exam. His father chided him, not for moral failure, but for stupidity. "Don't do this cheating thing; you're not clever enough," Joe wrote with cold-blooded condescension. Teddy joined the Army—a healthy exposure to the less cosseted—but his influential father intervened to keep him far from the front lines in Korea. He served comfortably as a NATO honor guard in Paris.
He married, but not happily. His beautiful wife, Joan, was later shown a film of their wedding. Older brother Jack, who was wearing a microphone, could be heard advising his nervous kid brother not to worry—marriage did not require fidelity. Teddy worshiped Jack and, during JFK's 1960 presidential race, was put in charge of rounding up votes in the Western states. JFK lost almost all of them. Teddy used humor as a defense: CAN I COME BACK IF I PROMISE TO CARRY THE WESTERN STATES IN 1964? he wired his family.
Joe wanted to make him a senator anyway, almost to show that he could. Both President Jack and Attorney General Robert grumbled; the Kennedys would be blamed for nepotistic overreaching, they protested, and, what was more, Teddy, not yet 30, was not up to the job. Joe insisted, and in November 1962 Teddy was elected senator from Massachusetts. Inevitably, his cheating incident at Harvard was exposed. As Kennedy aides tried to bargain with The Boston Globe, which was about to break the story, President Kennedy remarked, "Jesus, we're having more f––king trouble with this than we did with the Bay of Pigs." The president's national-security adviser (and former Harvard dean) McGeorge Bundy chimed in, "Yes, and with just about the same results."
But Ted was surprisingly good at his new job. He was patient; he listened. He became friends with ideological opposites such as Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, an old Southern segregationist who was a shrewd legislative operator and who, over a bottle of Scotch in his hideaway office, showed the young Kennedy how the game was played on Capitol Hill. With reporters, or speaking on TV, Kennedy was inarticulate, a mangler of syntax. But in the privacy of the Senate cloakroom, he was funny and sharp.
The long hand of his fated family would not let go. When the president was assassinated in November 1963, it fell to Teddy to tell their stroke-ridden father. His clumsy wording suggests the pain. "There's been a bad accident," Ted began. "The president has been hurt very badly. As a matter of fact, he died." Then the son dropped to his knees and wept into the outstretched hands of his father.
In June 1964, Teddy almost became another Kennedy tragedy. Flying as a passenger in a small plane, he crashed in bad weather near Springfield, Mass., breaking three vertebrae and two ribs and collapsing a lung. He was bedridden for nearly six months. But he used the time well. As his wife joked, "Teddy's reading the books he should have read in college." He got more serious.
Brother Robert was elected to the Senate from New York in 1964, and it was widely assumed that RFK, who had been a kind of deputy president, a chief adviser to JFK, would overshadow his younger brother. But Bobby didn't really belong in the Senate, which was too parochial and slow-moving an institution for the edgy, sometimes rude goad to power. "RFK was in the Senate, but not of it," said Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. Teddy, by contrast, was a natural. The Senate was a place where he belonged, a large family in which he was allowed to excel. In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson passed the first significant immigration reform in more than four decades, removing national quotas that kept out non-Europeans, the key lawmaker was Edward Kennedy. It was an early indication of his effectiveness as a champion of the powerless.
And then Bobby, too, was dead, killed by an assassin's bullet on the night he won the California primary for the Democratic presidential nomination in June 1968. The pressure was back on Teddy, to be the head of the family, the heir to their throne, the fulfiller of his father's dreams—even though his father had shown so little confidence in him as a child and as a young man. There was no escape, though Kennedy searched hard for one.
On a humid night in July 1969, Kennedy attended an informal barbecue with a few staffers and a half dozen "boiler-room girls," veterans of RFK's '68 campaign, on the island of Chappaquiddick, off Martha's Vineyard. Sometime around midnight, he slipped out with one of the young women, Mary Jo Kopechne, an earnest, devout, normally abstemious 28-year-old. As Kennedy drove, his car plummeted off a wooden bridge on the way to the beach (Kennedy claimed he was driving Kopechne to the ferry, in the opposite direction, and had made a wrong turn, a story that almost no one believed). Kennedy was able to struggle to the surface, but, diving back down in a fast current, he was unable to rescue Kopechne. For nine hours, Kennedy did not notify the police; rather, he lay in a motel room, wishing, he said later, that the whole thing would go away, like a bad dream. Once more, he had to go to his father with terrible news. "Dad, I'm in some trouble," he said. "There's been an accident, and you're going to hear all sorts of things about me from now on. Terrible things. But, Dad, I want you to know that they're not true. It was an accident."
The publicity was devastating. Rumors flew, some suggesting that if Kennedy had sought emergency help, Kopechne might have been saved (the diver who recovered her body said he believed that she had suffocated, not drowned, which suggested she had been clinging to life in an air pocket). Kennedy managed to avoid serious legal trouble, but an aide, flying over the scene of the incident, was seen looking down and overheard to say, "There goes the presidency."
And yet, a presidential run was somehow inevitable, or at least unavoidable. In 1979, with President Jimmy Carter sliding in the polls, Kennedy decided to try to unseat him as the Democratic nominee. His heart was not in the effort. Kennedy was rambling and listless in an interview with CBS newsman Roger Mudd, unable to say why he wanted to be president. His campaign collapsed.
Kennedy upstaged Carter at the Democratic National Convention with his evocative speech promising that "the dream shall never die." And then, knowing that he could never be president, he was finally liberated to do what he was really good at—getting Congress to pass laws to help the downtrodden. During the Reagan years, he defended liberalism like a lion. But he worked behind the scenes to forge alliances across the aisle that kept alive liberal legislation.
Still, the ghosts remained. Or maybe he really was careless. Kennedy watchers, even friends, still refer to his "bad-boy period," which seemed to go on for more than a decade. Joan Kennedy, then an alcoholic and unable to keep up with the athletic, prolific Ethel Kennedy on the tennis court or in the nursery, was, by the late 1960s, married to Teddy in name only. The last straw, she believed, was being required to attend Mary Jo Kopechne's funeral while she was pregnant, at a time when she should have been on bed rest. She miscarried—her third in a row. The two would later divorce. Kennedy became known on Capitol Hill for his antics. In a WashingtonMonthly essay titled "Kennedy's Woman Problem, Women's Kennedy Problem," author Suzannah Lessard accused Kennedy of "a severe case of arrested development, a kind of narcissistic intemperance, a huge babyish ego that must be constantly fed." More like it, a huge sadness that needed to be blotted out by sex and alcohol.
Kennedy was a reliable and diligent senator. Every night he took home what his staffers called "the Bag," stuffed with briefing papers and documents that Kennedy studied and marked up. He was, after the death of his brothers, the paterfamilias of the extended Kennedy family—loving, warm, and involved, but not exactly a role model. The Kennedy cousins were known as hard partyers, and their shenanigans were bound to end badly.
During Easter weekend in 1991, Kennedy, his son Patrick, and a nephew named Willie Smith (son of sister Jean Kennedy and Steve Smith) went barhopping near the Kennedy winter home in Palm Beach, Fla. Willie was accused of raping a young woman he met in a bar. He was acquitted, but the legal proceedings were a circus, and the publicity added to Teddy's image as an aging roué.
Kennedy cut back on his drinking. He lost weight. He continued to be a superb senator. At a time of growing partisanship on Capitol Hill, he had a knack for reaching across the aisle. He made an improbable friendship and part-time political alliance with Orrin Hatch, a Mormon conservative who, ostensibly, stood against everything Kennedy stood for. Working all the angles, Kennedy passed bills to protect the disabled, extend educational benefits, and to guarantee health care to young and old. His one great cause was universal health insurance. With a twinkle, he would shame his colleagues, noting that, if they became ill or injured, they could just go to the congressional doctor's office and get taken care of. Why shouldn't their constituents have the same opportunity?
Kennedy became ill himself before he could realize his dream. But he never stopped working for it. And though he was sick with a terrible brain cancer, he showed a memorable joyousness and determination to persevere. Last December, Harvard, the school that kicked him out for cheating more than five decades earlier, held a convocation to award Kennedy an honorary degree. The Rev. Peter Gomes, the Plummer professor of Christian morals at the university, offered the invocation. It began, "Let us now praise famous men … " Yo-Yo Ma played the cello; a movie showed Kennedy catching a touchdown pass against Yale in 1955 (one achievement that actually earned his father's notice). Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who had once worked as Kennedy's chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised his long career in public service. At the end, as the band played "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard," Kennedy's wife, Vicki, had to gently nudge him off the stage. He kept waving and giving the thumbs up. He did not seem at all like a dying man. He seemed free at last.