Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

I know it's a little late for a tribute to Ted Kennedy, but I've been struggling to figure out what more I could add about him. Well, I'll add a little bit more, but I make no claim that what I have to add is anything brilliant. The Kennedy brothers have long been political heroes to me. Their public service added so much to the life of this country. Say what you will about Joe Kennedy, the father, but he instilled in all the members of his family the need to give something back, to not just make more money. He made the money so his children could do something of worth. And they did.

Ted was not as easy to stereotype as his brothers. There was pragmatic Jack and idealistic Bobby, so where did Ted fit in? He was really a mixture of them. He stayed true to his ideals, and yet was able to work well with those he differed with. Ted seems to have been less remote and easier to know than either of his brothers.

Ted obviously had personal failings, which were well-documented. To understand the man, you have to dig deeper into his biography and see that there was more to Ted than just his mistakes and bad decisions, something Ted-haters will never do. Ted was more than just the catalogue of his failings. That being said, he made grave errors in judgement in dealing with the accident at Chappaquiddick. There are still unanswered questions about that night, and we will probably never know if Ted's version of the story was the truth. I think it's very likely that he was simply incredibly drunk, and maybe his friends told him to sleep it off before summoning help. For whatever reason, his delay in reporting the accident to the police was inexcusable.

Ted Kennedy had patience, something Jack and Bobby both lacked. It's as if Teddy knew from an early age that he would be granted the time that Jack and Bobby did not have. Sometime after Bobby joined Ted in the Senate in 1965, they were listening to an interminable speech and Bobby looked over at Ted and said, "Do we have to sit here and listen to this?" "Yes," Ted replied. Patience served Ted well in the Senate, and he became a great legislator, something that Jack and Bobby could never claim. Ted was more effective in the Senate than they were. Ted lost his best friend, his brother Bobby, in June of 1968, and Bobby's death devastated Ted, just as Jack's death had devastated Bobby. In the dark days of the summer of 1968, Ted seriously considered withdrawing from public life, and who could blame him had he done so? He had every right to step back from public life. But Teddy came back, and kept going to work in the Senate. I think that says a lot about the man, that he was willing to take the chance that staying in public life might endanger his safety.

Ted's personal life finally got happier after his 1992 marriage to Vicki Reggie, and he continued to be the leading liberal voice in the Senate until his death. To learn more about Teddy, two great books I would highly recommend are Adam Clymer's 1999 biography and Burton Hersh's "The Shadow President: Ted Kennedy in Opposition." Hersh's book chronicles Kennedy's Senate career from 1980 until the mid-1990's, and it drives home the fact that Ted was really one of the only people who stood up to Ronald Reagan during the 80's, as Reagan tried to dismantle the federal government. All in all, Ted Kennedy will be remembered not just as the last Kennedy brother, but as one of the most effective Senators in United States history.