Meacham: Kennedy, Personality, and Power

It fell to him, the youngest, to tell his father. On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Edward Moore Kennedy was in Washington, presiding over the U.S. Senate—a ceremonial chore assigned to junior lawmakers—when word came that the president had been shot in Dallas. He found his sister Eunice Shriver, and together they flew from the capital to Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. From there they were driven to Hyannis. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy Sr., stricken by stroke but still mentally alert, was napping. Unsure how to break the news to the president's father, the household staff had unplugged the patriarch's television, telling the old man that it was on the blink. When the senior Kennedy pointed to the plug, Teddy put it back in the wall and surreptitiously ripped the wires out of the back of the set. The next morning, after mass, Teddy and Eunice returned to their father's bedroom. "There's been a bad accident," Teddy said. "The president has been hurt very badly." The ambassador, who had been looking out the window, turned his full attention to his youngest son, who managed: "As a matter of fact, he died."

In the horror of those hours, and in so many hours to come, Ted Kennedy was playing a role that would grow all too familiar: that of the survivor, soldiering on, assuming the burdens of his fallen brothers, always with an eye on caring for the family his father had built.

The Kennedys have long been both makers and mirrors of the larger American story. From the rise of ethnic politicians in the big cities to the Jazz Age to the birth of Hollywood to isolationism to JFK's cool liberalism and RFK's hot version, the family's history will forever be part of the nation's.

We know all that. What is less appreciated is how Kennedy's journey from youthful (and not-so-youthful) personal irresponsibility to legislative greatness illuminates the nuances and ironies of personality and power. As Kennedy knew firsthand, the world is a tragic place and will never fully conform to our wishes. Bills fail; cancer strikes; assassins kill. The important thing is to keep moving, trying to learn from our sins and working to redeem ourselves.

His was a life with its share of joys. He loved his children, his siblings, his nieces and nephews; he was the best of friends—warm and funny and always there. JFK and RFK were noble public servants, as was Teddy. But the youngest Kennedy brother was given something denied his more glamorous elders: the gift of years. Unlike them, he had world enough and time. He was at the weddings and the wakes and the baptisms and the Easters and the Christmases. He was a sailor whom the fates allowed to finish the voyage.

The public nostalgia on the occasion of Kennedy's death from brain cancer at 77 is not only a sentimental farewell to the Last Brother, but also a moment for the country to appreciate the complexity of life by contemplating the one Ted Kennedy led. In death, as in the Senate, Kennedy has surprising lessons to teach.

Kennedy's part in his family's saga is particularly poignant and revealing, for his story is really one of a search for redemption, not of the smooth unfolding of destiny. Everyone, it seemed, expected he would be president one day; Esquire magazine once depicted the Kennedy dynasty running consecutively from JFK to RFK to Teddy to John Jr. It is the Kennedy family's tragedy that only one of those men lived to see the 21st century.

For Teddy the expectations were enormous, even superhuman. He was Prince Edward, the last great hope of restoration. (The possibility obsessed Richard Nixon, who had already lost to one Kennedy.) In the end, though, his one run for the office, in 1980, was a curiosity, if a significant one: a primary challenge against an incumbent of his own party, Jimmy Carter. He would never seek the White House again. His demons were legion, but given what he faced in life, whose would not be? As a child during World War II, he lost his glamorous older siblings Joe Jr. and Kathleen; then came Dallas, and then Los Angeles, and then Chappaquiddick, where, 40 summers ago, he drove off a bridge in the night, crashed into the water, swam to the surface, and left the scene. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the car. The incident almost certainly cost Kennedy the presidency.

Light and dark contended for his soul, and, as with so many of us, darkness won a battle or two. Yet in the long run, taken all in all, his better angels triumphed in the war that unfolded within him. He was a man of great contradictions, and his vices were often closely related to his virtues. A gregarious pol, he had a weakness for strong drink and for women not his wife. Well into middle age, he was too reckless; as late as 1991, he delivered a speech at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government promising to address his personal shortcomings.

And he did, remarrying happily and keeping after what he had always done best: working Capitol Hill and passing laws designed, essentially, to further the work of the New Deal and the spirit of the New Frontier. With Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Kennedy will be that rare thing: a memorable United States senator.

On that terrible November weekend in 1963, after delivering the word to his father, Ted returned to Washington to help plan the funeral for his brother. The family was considering different readings, and Jacqueline Kennedy suggested Ecclesiastes. "Well, this mightn't be wrong at all," Ted said. " 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.' " In the end, the words that seemed most enduring from the funeral were the ancient ones uttered by Cardinal Cushing: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them." John F. Kennedy's journey was done, as was Robert's not even five years later. Now Ted joins them there, in Arlington, where the brothers are together at last.