Controversy beset powerful liberal, who stepped from brothers’ shadows
Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy was the last of four brothers in one of America’s most famed but ill-fated political dynasties.
Unlike older brothers John and Robert, whose lives were cut off in their prime by assassins’ bullets, Kennedy — who died late Tuesday in his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., after a year-long battle with brain cancer — became one of the Senate’s most senior and powerful members during long decades of liberal leadership.
He helped shape dozens of major bills on issues such as civil rights, health and aid for the poor. And just a year ago he threw his support behind now President Obama, delivering a spirited speech at the Democratic National Convention, despite his cancer treatments.
But his personal life was clouded by controversy, most notably the 1969 accident on the offshore island of Chappaquiddick, Mass., in which a young woman passenger drowned.
That cost him a leadership position in the Senate and perhaps his chance for the presidency.
Although often mentioned as a likely candidate, he failed in his only bid for the White House, a 1980 bid to unseat fellow Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
In a 1999 biography, reporter Adam Clymer noted Kennedy was often “dismissed as an eloquent anachronism, the last liberal of a conservative age, overmatched by the hopes created when his brothers died young.”
But Clymer, who covered the senator for many years for The New York Times, said, “He deserves recognition not just as the leading senator of his time, but as one of the greats in history.”
From childhood, the four Kennedy brothers were groomed for national leadership by their father.
The oldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was killed in a World War II plane crash. The family’s political leadership devolved on the second son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and he fulfilled his father’s hopes by winning election in 1960 as the nation’s 35th president.
But President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 in Dallas, as was brother Robert in Los Angeles when he sought the White House in 1968. That left Edward as not only the sole surviving son and the family’s principal political hope but the dominant figure in the large, Irish Catholic family.
Born in Boston on Feb. 22, 1932, Ted Kennedy lived in the New York suburb of Bronxville both before and after his father’s stint in the late 1930s as ambassador to Great Britain. After selling their house in 1941, the family spent summers in Hyannis Port, Mass., and winters in Palm Beach, Fla. Young Ted was sent to a series of boarding schools.
He was caught cheating at Harvard in 1951, he was banished and enlisted in the Army for two years before returning to complete his degree. He went on to the University of Virginia Law School, also attended by brother Robert.
In his second year, he met Joan Bennett, and a year later they were married. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. But, as Clymer noted, their marriage was strained. In 1977, she moved back to Boston and, in 1981, they were divorced.
Kennedy first became involved in politics in 1958, serving as the nominal campaign manager in brother John’s Senate re-election campaign. In 1960, he served as a surrogate speaker for his brother’s presidential bid and supervised campaign efforts in the Mountain States.
But when John was elected and brother Robert disclaimed interest in succeeding him in the Senate, Ted set his sights on the seat for which he would not even become eligible until 1962.
In the spring of 1964, just months after his brother’s assassination, it appeared the Kennedy jinx had struck again when a plane carrying the senator crashed in Western Massachusetts. He suffered two broken vertebrae.
Edward Kennedy’s early years in the Senate were overshadowed by the presence of his brother, Robert.
In a sad echo, it was Robert’s assassination in June 1968 and his subsequent funeral that provided the young Massachusetts senator with his first starring role as the family’s leader.
That summer, there was talk of drafting the senator for the Democratic presidential nomination as the replacement for his dead brother. But Kennedy declined to enter the race. The following year, amid pleas by fellow liberals that he assume his late brother’s leadership role, Kennedy ousted Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana to win the second-ranking Democratic leadership post in the Senate.
And there was widespread speculation he would seek the White House in 1972.
But everything changed that July when Kennedy was involved in the incident that forever tarred his career.
Late on the evening of July 19, 1969, Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off a narrow wooden bridge. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former Robert Kennedy aide who worked for a political consulting firm, drowned.
Kennedy, who later said he attempted unsuccessfully to rescue her, escaped from the submerged vehicle and swam to the mainland. He managed to escape severe legal consequences for his actions, pleading guilty to leaving the site of an accident.
On the night after his plea, the senator delivered a televised speech in which he called his actions “indefensible” and asked voters if he should quit his Senate seat.
A vast majority urged him to remain in office.
During the late 1970s, he became increasingly critical of Carter’s conservative bent. Finally, in the fall of 1979, he decided to challenge the president’s re-election. Carter defeated him decisively in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Despite some later triumphs, Kennedy never recovered.
At the Democratic Convention that August in New York, Kennedy brought the crowd to its feet with a thundering speech in which he vowed that, despite his defeat, “the hope lives on, and the dream shall never die.”
But he never again sought the White House.
By 1991, Kennedy’s bachelor lifestyle was beginning to take a toll on his reputation, and friends were worried.
After an Easter weekend of pub-crawling with his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, turned into a scandal when Smith was accused of raping a woman who returned to the Kennedy’s Palm Beach compound with him, Kennedy asked Senate colleagues to vouch for him. According to Clymer’s biography, Sen. Orin Hatch told Kennedy “if you keep acting like this, I’m going to send the Mormon missionaries to you,” and Kennedy replied, “I’m just about ready for them.”
As it turned out, fate had a different rescue in store for Kennedy. In 1992, he married Victoria Reggie, and began to turn his life around. By the time of his death, he was widely respected as one of the Senate’s senior statesmen.
“Harry Truman used to say ‘If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,’ ” former Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, told USA TODAY this month. “Ted came under a lot of heat — some of it of his own making — but he was not a quitter.”