Understanding Teddy Kennedy

In the 1950s, Charlottesville, Va., was—as it largely remains—an idyllic place of Jeffersonian architecture, Blue Ridge vistas, and seemingly endless white horse-country fences. It was fashionable in certain Eastern circles for children of the Ivy League to journey south for law school at the University of Virginia. Louis Auchincloss did it, and so, in 1956, did Edward Moore Kennedy. "At law school he was already known for three things that stayed with him: drinking, driving fast, and women," says Charles Peters, the founding editor of the Washington Monthly, who overlapped with Kennedy at UVA. The substantive side of Kennedy—the one that has received so much attention since he died of brain cancer at 77—was in evidence, too, if less noted. "He and John Tunney, who became a senator from California, won the moot court, and you didn't win that if you didn't have good lawyerly instincts. That was a big deal."

There it all was, in Albemarle County in the years of Eisenhower: Teddy Kennedy, playboy and grind, carouser and achiever. As Kennedy said in eulogizing his brother Robert, we should not enlarge Ted in death beyond what he was in life, for what he was in life offers us uncommon insights into the nature of power and of character. To cast him in a sentimental warm light (the left) or to demonize him (the right) are equally inadequate to capturing his character, and in capturing his character we might find some help in our time, and in our own lives. The idea that Teddy Kennedy—of Hyannis Port and Harvard, the brother of two fabled martyrs, and the third-longest-serving United States senator in history—is actually one of us is counterintuitive. Yet when you think about it, the challenges he faced and the sins he committed were less about life on an American Mount Olympus and more in line with what ordinary mortals face. He was a man, not a monument, and the fact that he managed to accomplish monumental things is all the more inspiring given his all too human flaws.

Ted Kennedy was the fat kid who got picked on. Once, at school, he appealed to his older brother Robert for help, only to be told he had to fight his own battles. He struggled to find his footing in a complicated family, yearned for his parents' love and attention, adored his siblings while in some sense competing with them. He suffered physical pain, had an unhappy first marriage, drank to escape the awful responsibilities that fell to him as his brothers, one after another, died in the service of their country. He chased women, and at Chappaquiddick 40 years ago he left Mary Jo Kopechne to die. His sins and shortcomings were vast, but many of us contend with lust and drink and the terrors of accidents and afflictions. True, his life played out on a larger stage than almost any other American's. The drama of a flawed human being trying to do his best in a tragic and uncertain world, however, is universal.

In this issue, you will read a series of essays that seek to put Kennedy in context and suggest that the prevailing caricatures of the last brother should be rethought. "For all the eulogies about his epic struggle with sin and redemption," writes Evan Thomas, "Ted actually vindicated a more mundane truism: that half (or maybe as much as 90 percent) of success in life is just showing up." He came to work, and he persevered. No matter what happened, he kept moving.

Two lessons from Kennedy's life seem worth mulling. The first is that the contradictions of his character—the rake who cared about the poor and dispossessed—should remind us that reflexively caricaturing and criticizing politicians is unproductive. On close inspection, most public figures are pretty much like us, only more so: their virtues and their vices are usually outsize, which is one of the things that make them intriguing.

The second lesson is about the utility of compromise. Ted Kennedy essentially embodied liberal orthodoxy, but he was not a purist. He believed in getting things done and never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He sometimes saw life and politics in the way the founder of his old law-school alma mater did: as a never-ending story in which we would struggle toward a more perfect union while understanding that the kingdom of God was not likely to be legislated into existence. "No one, I hope, can doubt my wish to see … all mankind exercising self-government," said Thomas Jefferson. "But the question is not what we wish, but what is practicable." As Ted Kennedy knew well, that is always the question. It is up to us to answer it.