A Lion, But No Lionization

It was an unusually candid admission, particularly for a politician. A few years ago, in a meeting with NEWSWEEK editors, a distinguished and well-known United States senator—the session was on background, so I cannot identify the lawmaker by name—reflected on the fleeting nature of glory in his line of work. When he had first come to the Senate, he said, he had looked at his desk on the floor of the chamber, a desk that bore the name of each senator who had ever sat in that seat. Eagerly, the new man's eyes ran up and down the list. "And you know what?" he said, recalling the moment. "I didn't recognize a single one of them. Easy come, easy go."

It is safe to say that the name of the author of this week's cover, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, will never slip unremembered into the mists of history, and that alone makes him a man who repays study. He is a member of an elite company, and not just by being a Kennedy (actually, he has more well-known relatives than the popular imagination has great senators). Beyond Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, the list of truly national immortals is fairly short.

Yet Kennedy is one of them, and he has been given a gift too few of us ever receive: he has been able, since his diagnosis of brain cancer, to hear his own eulogies. The story is by now familiar. He is the lion of the Senate, we are told, a well-born tireless warrior for the poor and dispossessed, in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, who made Kennedy's father, Joseph Sr., ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

Ted Kennedy's life is the stuff of American legend, and of American tragedy. He lost his first glamorous brother early, when Joe Jr. died in World War II. First elected to his brother John's old seat in 1962, the year after Barack Obama was born, Kennedy was presiding over the Senate on the day President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, and was in San Francisco on the night Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. And so it has fallen to Ted, the last brother, to endure. He has kept to the Senate, served as patriarch to his clan, and built one of the great legislative records in history.

All true, but in the sentiment of the moment—Ted Kennedy is dying, and the subject of his essay for us, health care, is his last great battle—we do him, and ourselves, a kind of disservice if we smooth over the rougher elements of his long story. Forty years ago to the day that we closed this essay, Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick in the darkness, crashing into the water and leaving his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, behind as he swam to the surface and left the scene. He did not report the accident until morning; only then was her body found. (When I was growing up in the South, Kennedy and Tip O'Neill were familiar Republican targets, and I remember a bumper sticker that read MORE PEOPLE HAVE DIED IN TED KENNEDY'S CAR THAN AT THREE MILE ISLAND. Not exactly subtle, but there we are.)

Kennedy's life is more compelling, and more instructive, if it is seen not as the inevitable unfolding of the destiny of a man devoted to public service but as the story of a search for redemption. He was only 36 when RFK was assassinated, and 37 when he crashed at Chappaquiddick. His days of irresponsibility lasted for two decades more. Into the early 1990s he embodied the vices of the Kennedy clan more than the virtues, drinking and womanizing to such a degree that he delivered a speech at the school named for his brother at Harvard acknowledging his personal shortcomings and promising to address them.

It is fair, then, to note that when Kennedy calls health-care reform "the cause of my life," he is talking about a life that is hardly a model of sobriety and statesmanship. The important thing, though, is that it is a life that has included the sober and the statesmanlike. The complexity of Kennedy's legacy—the good and the bad, the political achievements and the personal disasters—makes him an accessible, human figure, and a strangely inspirational one. For if Ted Kennedy can successfully battle demons and drink, conquering selfishness just enough to work through the decades for causes other than the satisfaction of his own appetites, then the rest of us can, too. One can be a lion without being overly lionized. Whatever happens to health care in 2009, an appreciation that frail and fallen men can do good things will be among the legacies that Ted Kennedy will leave us—and that his successors in the Senate should bear in mind, whichever desk they are assigned.