Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot!
— King Arthur, "Camelot"
A political era ended with the death of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, 77, who retrieved the fallen banner of Camelot progressivism when assassins' bullets struck down older brothers John F. and Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s.
Although Kennedy was the Senate's standard-bearer of those liberal beliefs for more than four decades, his legacy will be marred forever by the wrong turn he took shortly before midnight on July 18, 1969. After leaving a party on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha's Vineyard, he inexplicably turned right instead of left onto an unlit, unpaved road that led to a narrow wooden bridge with no guardrail.
The senator's black Oldsmobile sedan tumbled off the bridge, landing upside down in about 8 feet of fast-moving water. Kennedy somehow escaped, but 28-year-old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne was not as fortunate. Her death under circumstances as murky as the roiling waters that poured into the Oldsmobile that night ruined Kennedy's chances of winning the presidency, which some had viewed as a virtual birthright for the Kennedy scion.
A few days after the accident, Kennedy strongly denied "the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior." But he could not explain why he failed to notify police about the wreck until the following morning, after he called his attorney.
Despite the Chappaquiddick incident and Kennedy's well-earned reputation for licentious behavior, he went on to forge perhaps the broadest legislative record of any senator of his era. A genial man of fierce liberal instincts who displayed a surprising talent for building bridges with Republican moderates, Kennedy influenced virtually every major issue to come before Congress during the past half century: civil rights, immigration, workers' rights, education, and healthcare reform. He was second only to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., in seniority.
Kennedy's impending death had stirred political temblors for more than a year, since his May 2008 diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor began haunting the Washington political establishment.
And he agitated the scene further when he passed the torch of noblesse-oblige liberalism to Barack Obama, giving him a major boost at a critical point in the 2008 primary campaign.
True to his pugilistic temperament, Kennedy pulled no punches when he endorsed the young Illinois senator. "There was another time," Kennedy said, in a rare public reference to his fallen brother, "when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier. He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party." (That historical reference to Harry S. Truman also was considered a thinly veiled slap at the Clintons.)
Kennedy then said, to thunderous applause: "And John Kennedy replied, 'The world is changing. The old ways will not do . . . It is time for a new generation of leadership.' So it is with Barack Obama."
That invocation of JFK's legacy, and the credibility it bestowed upon Obama, was worth its weight in political gold, in the view of pundits and pollsters. Obama, in return, would call Kennedy "a giant in American political history."
Increasing international stature also marked Kennedy's later years. In March, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that Kennedy would be granted the honorary title of "Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire." One can only imagine how Kennedy's older brothers would have reacted upon learning that their little brother now could be addressed as "Sir Ted."
It was, in a way, the fulfillment of words John F. Kennedy had had inscribed on a cigarette case given to his youngest brother nearly 50 years ago: "And the last shall be first."
Teddy, as friends and family knew him affectionately, also played an important role behind the stage curtain of the Kennedys' public lives. He was the deeply flawed patriarch who guided a great and controversial American family through a litany of mind-numbing tragedies. The family's misfortunes once even led him to ponder "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys."
Kennedy was the last surviving son of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. As such, he watched as the lives of a small army of nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren unfolded. The most notable among them include his son Patrick J. Kennedy, a U.S. congressman representing Rhode Island's 1st District; nephew Joseph P. Kennedy, a former congressman said to be in the running to fill his uncle's now-vacant seat in the Senate: and niece Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, the only surviving child of President Kennedy and wife Jackie.
That Caroline, with virtually no political leadership experience, was mentioned prominently as a contender to succeed Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate this year was a clear signal that the family's legacy had survived what Sen. Kennedy once called "faults in the conduct of my private life."
The legacy is likely to endure for generations to come.
'So Get on Your Toes'
Rose Kennedy, a devout Catholic and family matriarch, was 41 when she became pregnant with what would be her ninth and last child. Edward Moore Kennedy — the man former GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain one day would hail as the "liberal lion" of the U.S. Senate — was born on Feb. 22, 1932. He was named after a longtime, devoted aide of his father's, Edward Moore.
He came to be known as "Teddy," and, as the youngest of the burgeoning clan, he was the object of the entire family's affection. As Boston Globe writers put it in the recent biography "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy": "Teddy grew up with both a rich kid's sense of superiority and a youngest child's sense of inferiority."
Even as a child, Kennedy was a born charmer. One Halloween, as recounted in "Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy," he wrote to his father at age 7: "I got dressed up like a ghost and went all the way down the road. I didn't scare because you said not to scare anyone because they may have a weak heart."
Being charming wasn't enough, however, when it came to earning your stripes as a Kennedy. Much has been written about how Joseph and Rose instilled their family with both a clannish camaraderie and an internecine spirit of competition, along with unyielding standards of expected accomplishment.
This double-bind quality of Ted Kennedy's upbringing is illustrated repeatedly in anecdotes in "Last Lion." At age 5, when he said he didn't know where a sailboat's jib was, his cherished eldest brother Joe Jr. tossed him out of the vessel and into the Atlantic Ocean. His brother immediately pulled him to safety, of course.
His father, who was equally loving and demanding, would utter dictums such as, "No losers in this family" and "No rich, idle bums."
Both parents criticized his weight during his years in boarding school. "He is too fat," his father would declare.
Father Joe also had a bad habit of openly comparing one child with another, and Ted was considered the least intellectual of the brothers. When Teddy was 11, Joe complained that his grades were "terrible."
"You wouldn't want to have people say that Joe [Jr.] and Jack Kennedy's brother was such a bad student, so get on your toes," he commanded.
Such was life as a Kennedy. It meant an early exposure to public service, and also to tragedy.
At the age of 11, he learned that revered brother Jack had been injured seriously — nearly killed, then nearly captured — when a Japanese destroyer rammed his ship, PT-109.
The next year, the family broke it to Ted that his other war-hero brother, Joe Jr., was killed when his modified B-24 Liberator exploded near the English town of Halesworth. The WWII naval aviator perished during a bombing run on a Nazi missile base.
Then three months after Ted turned 16, word came that sister Kathleen, whose marriage to an Anglican nobleman had offended her Catholic mother but garnered her the title Marchioness of Hartington, died in a plane crash in France.
The deaths were enough misfortune to make any family feel star-crossed but were merely early waves from the tsunami of tragedy rapidly bearing down on the Kennedys.
The family culture, however, scorned any hint of self-pity. Punctilious Rose would not permit any shirking of the family's unwaveringly high standards. Rose was a loving perfectionist who insisted that her large brood follow household rules to the letter.
Her youngest son, charming though he was, often frustrated her expectations. Even years later as a U.S. Senator, Kennedy would receive notes from his mother upbraiding his grammar.
"I wish you would pay attention to this matter," she once wrote. "Use 'whom' after a preposition. For Whom the Bell Tolls. The man to whom I wrote. If you listen to Jack's speeches, you will notice that he always uses this word correctly."
Kennedy's scholastic experience combined a high-flying social life with grades that wallowed in the gutter. It was an intoxicating mix that culminated with his expulsion from Harvard's class of 1950, whose members included the likes of novelist John Updike, attorney F. Lee Bailey, and Sen. John Culver.
In the spring of Ted's freshman year, desperately needing to pass a Spanish class to remain eligible to play football, he persuaded a teammate to take his test for him. The ruse was discovered, and both were expelled for cheating.
Ted then began a tour of duty in the Army. His father's connections kept him safely away from the Korean War, and he served his time as a NATO honor guard in Paris. After receiving his discharge from the Army in 1953, Ted returned to Harvard and became more serious about his studies. He graduated in 1956.
From there he went on to the University of Virginia law school. It was during his UVA years that Kennedy met Virginia Joan Bennett in 1957. She was a beauty pageant winner and political tyro who preferred to be known simply as Joan. The smitten Ted proposed, and she accepted — but she had second thoughts as the marriage date approached. She reportedly thought she should get to know him better, but her father insisted that the wedding go forward. They were married on Nov. 29, 1958.
Over the course of their marriage, Joan, who struggled with alcoholism and was devastated by her husband's compulsive philandering, probably wondered at times why she hadn't listened to her own instincts during the engagement.
At one point, sister-in-law Jackie counseled her of Ted: "He adores you. He thinks you're a wonderful wife and you're smart and you're talented and you're a wonderful mother. His mother and father adore you, and the whole family loves you. You're just the perfect wife. But he just has this addiction."
During Kennedy's years at the University of Virginia, he continued to distinguish himself in the wrong sort of way. While in Charlottesville getting his law degree, Kennedy threw legendary parties. He also received a practicum in the law, being charged with reckless driving and driving without a license after leading police on a 90-mile-per-hour chase.
"Let's stay out of the gossip columns," Father Joe wrote.
Staying out of the gossip columns was important because Teddy would be appointed to run brother Jack's 1958 campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Teddy's gift for political glad-handing first emerged during that campaign.
"Joe was impressed by his youngest son's flair on the trail and often remarked that he was the most natural politician in the family," the Globe's staff writes in "Last Lion."
After his older brother won re-election by a landslide, the father's political machinations were all in place: John F. Kennedy would run for president in 1960. Brother Robert would join his Cabinet. And Ted would be positioned to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated with JFK's rise to the presidency.
Ted was the western-states manager for the campaign that put his brother in the Oval Office. And holding to the plan, Ted announced his intention to run for his brother's old seat in March 1962. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would recall later that JFK asked for a virtual, "discreet mobilization" of the federal government to ensure his younger brother won.
When the youngest Kennedy won his 1962 Senate race, it appeared all the pieces of the dynastic puzzle were in place. The junior senator from Massachusetts could now call his brother in the Oval Office to request a favor from the U.S. attorney general, or vice versa. To the father who had started all the wheels in motion, it must have seemed like a dream worthy of Camelot was coming true.
But shots fired at a motorcade in Dallas one year later would turn the dream to a nightmare.
'The Most Horrible Thing Has Happened'
The junior senator from Massachusetts was seated at the rostrum in the Senate chamber on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, presiding over routine business, when an aide ran toward him and cried: "The most horrible thing has happened! It's terrible, terrible."
Ted asked what was wrong.
"Your brother. Your brother the president. He's been shot."
Stunned, Kennedy rushed to his Georgetown home to check on wife Joan. He called brother Bobby, who told him the president had been killed. It fell to Ted to break the news to family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, whose health was poor following a stroke.
Giving Joe the news caused great travail in the Kennedy household, as recounted in Ronald Kessler's authoritative "The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded."
Rose wanted the children to tell their father, so a Secret Service agent unplugged all the television sets in the Hyannis Port manse to keep father Joe in the dark until the children could arrive. Ted and sister Eunice approached Joe somberly the next morning to break the news.
"Daddy," Eunice whispered, as Kessler relates the story, "Daddy, there's been an accident. But Jack's okay, Daddy. Jack was in an accident Daddy."
Finally the truth spilled out: "Oh, Daddy, Jack's dead," she said. "He's dead. But he's in heaven."
Ted at that point reportedly fell to his knees, burying his face in his hands.
"He's dead, Daddy," the youngest Kennedy sobbed. "He's dead."
Devastated by the news, the Kennedy family fell back on one of Joe's stern admonitions: "Kennedys don't cry," he liked to stay. And while tears flowed, the family members pressed on determinedly.
A week or so after the assassination, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston visited Joe Kennedy to recite the eulogy he'd given for Jack. It read in part: "Far more would he have accomplished for America and the world if it were not for his assassination here in the land that he loved and for which he dedicated and gave his life."
JFK's death marked the beginning of an even more tragedy-laden chapter in the Kennedy saga.
Indeed, it seemed as if Ted Kennedy had a death wish himself. In June 1964, just two months after he'd delivered his first major speech in the Senate in support of that year's landmark civil rights bill, he was nearly killed.
Kennedy's pilot refused to fly him to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention because of bad weather. The headstrong Kennedy chartered a plane anyway.
It crashed in dense fog near Southampton.
"Ted's recklessness was but another example of a family trait," comments author Kessler. "While it usually harmed only them, it sometimes affected others."
The pilot and Kennedy aide Ed Moss were killed. Kennedy was seriously injured, and a young Sen. Birch Bayh pulled him from the wreckage.
Kennedy's injuries were extensive: a back injury, several broken ribs, internal bleeding, and a punctured lung. Doctors wanted to perform lumbar-fusion surgery but Ted's king-maker father, who had suffered a stroke in December 1961 and had difficulty speaking, made it clear that he strongly objected. After all, JFK had nearly died from complications following spinal surgery in 1954.
"I'll do it your way," Ted assured his father.
That decision led to an extended convalescence, during which Ted gathered recollections of Joe from those who knew him. The volume that resulted, "The Fruitful Bough," was published privately.
On June 5, 1968, heartbreak struck again as Ted relaxed after a San Francisco celebration of brother Robert's victory in the California primary. Ted turned on the TV and learned that a bullet had felled Robert 400 miles away in Los Angeles, after he had given a victory speech.
Ted immediately flew to Los Angeles, but it was clear by the time he arrived that his brother would not survive. This time, he wouldn't have to break the dreadful news to his father, who had seen the reports on TV.
RFK's assassination was a grave blow to Ted. The Globe reported that RFK spokesman Frank Mankiewicz saw Teddy leaning on a bathroom sink near Robert's hospital room.
"I have never, ever, nor do I expect ever, to see a face more in grief," Mankiewicz said. "It was beyond grief and agony."
At RFK's eulogy, Ted delivered perhaps the most eloquent words he ever spoke.
"My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," he said, "but be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world."
As the last brother, Teddy was now expected to lead the family — a role for which some considered him ill-suited, and one that even he sometimes seemed to question whether he could fill.
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