Feature

Edward M. Kennedy

The liberal icon who was ‘the lion of the Senate’

Edward M. Kennedy1932–2009

In his 46 years in the Senate, Edward “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts was arguably the leading standard-bearer of postwar American liberalism. Brother of President John F. Kennedy and New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, he was also the patriarch of a charismatic political dynasty that embodied public service.

The ninth and last child of Rose Fitzgerald and self-made millionaire and ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, said the Los Angeles Times, he led a privileged life “filled with tragedy almost from the beginning.” Early on, his sister Rosemary, who was mentally disabled, was institutionalized; his brother Joe Jr. was killed during World War II. Another sister, Kathleen, died in a 1948 plane crash. Kennedy also created his own misfortunes: At Harvard, he was expelled for having a friend take his Spanish exam. As journalist Max Lerner wrote, this early sign of “blurred judgment” set a pattern of “confusion, blunder, remorse, expiation, rebuilding, that was to be repeated on a larger canvas.”

Kennedy graduated from the University of Virginia Law School and, in 1962, ran for his brother John’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts, said The Boston Globe. “His only public experience was a year as an assistant district attorney.” Despite derisive calls by critics that the seat “should be merited, not inherited,” Kennedy won the election. Soon he was backing health-care and immigration reform and civil rights, and opposing the Vietnam War.

“After his two brothers were assassinated,” said Newsday, “Kennedy became the heir apparent to the family’s storied political legacy.” But then scandal struck. Following a party on July 18, 1969, he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., with a young campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy swam to safety but left Kopechne, who drowned, behind. He didn’t go to the authorities for 10 hours. “When he challenged Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, the incident still dogged him.” Fielding a simple question from broadcast journalist Roger Mudd, Kennedy “could not coherently explain why he wanted to be president.”

For many years, Kennedy lived “the heedless private life of a playboy and a rake,” said The New York Times. His weight problems and reputation for drinking and womanizing often made him appear “a self-parody.” In 1982 he was divorced from his first wife, Joan, after 24 years. But his “personal life stabilized in 1992 with his marriage to Victoria Anne Reggie, a Washington lawyer.” By that time, too, Kennedy had established himself as “one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate.” Among other accomplishments, he “led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation.” A champion of such social programs as Meals on Wheels and Head Start, he also pressed for sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime and led the opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork.

“Opponents caricatured him as a symbol of liberal excess,” said The Washington Post. Yet Kennedy was a master compromiser, collaborating with Republicans to pass legislation. He teamed with President George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind, Sen. John McCain on immigration reform, and Sen. Robert Dole on the Americans With Disabilities Act. By the time he died last week of brain cancer, his “achievements, authority, and collegiality invited comparisons to Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and other titans” of the Senate.

“We know the future will outlast all of us,” Kennedy said in December, “but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make. I have lived in a blessed time.” He is survived by his wife, three children from his first marriage—including Rep. Patrick Kennedy—and the last sibling from his generation, Jean.

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