Thursday, September 03, 2009

Edward Moore Kennedy 1932-2009: A Life...

For anybody who knows the story of the Kennedy family, it should not be a surprise that Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy would enter politics. Certainly, it surprised few when he ran and then won the seat his brother had vacated two years before to assume the presidency of the United States. However, what may surprise many, especially after a careful examination of the record, was how differently Ted Kennedy would live out his political career. Admittedly, his brothers, Jack the President, and Bobby, the Attorney General and later New York Senator, found their careers cut short by the assassin's bullet. However, their legacies and even their histories are often clouded and confused by myth and legend, be it for good or for bad. The result, is one, where Ted Kennedy's own reach, scope, and influence may pale in comparison. True, JFK inspired a generation into public service like nobody since FDR. However, in a more temporal way, Ted Kennedy touched the lives of millions, past and present, around the world, in way neither Jack nor Bobby ever did...or at least could.

Edward Moore Kennedy was born February 22, 1932 in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Mass. The youngest of Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald's nine children, he was probably the most affected by his father's frequent moves across the country and then the globe for either business or public service including the Court of St. James in London.

Upon graduation from high school, Ted entered Harvard as many of his siblings did before him. However, he was expelled for cheating on a exam. He joined the Army briefly before reenlisting at Harvard. He graduated and attended the University of Virginia Law School, where he met his first wife and mother of his children Virginia Joan Bennett.

The following years would lead to his brother's ultimately successful campaign for the Presidency. For whatever reason, either Ted or his family kept their eye on JFK's old Senate seat. Teddy, however, would not be eligible for it until 1962, when he turned 30. Governor Foster Furcolo, (factoid: the predecessor to Edward Boland and Richie Neal in the US House) appointed a replacement who would not run in 1962. That year, Edward Kennedy was elected and in January of 1963, began his career in the United States Senate.

When he entered office in the winter of 62-63, Ted Kennedy became the third Kennedy brother in elected office. His older brothers John and Robert were president and Attorney General respectively. However, that trifecta would not be long for this world as JFK was gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald. Still younger than Bobby, it was not yet Teddy’s turn to take up the Kennedy mantle.

With Lyndon Johnson in the White House, Ted Kennedy would be serving in the Congresses that would pass the Great Society. In 1965, he would be joined by his surviving brother in the Senate representing New York. While serving together, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would call the Senators Kennedy and tell them that the navy yard in either Boston or New York had to close. Teddy, despite being the younger brother was the senior Senator and the Brooklyn Navy Yard was essentially shut down as a full-time military establishment. The Navy Yard in Boston at Charlestown would close within a decade.

As Lyndon Johnson’s presidency decayed between Vietnam and a growing frustration with the cost and effectiveness of the Great Society, it became clear that a new Democratic candidate would be necessary for 1968. With a recharged Richard Nixon eying the White House, many felt that only a Kennedy could rise to the occasion and defeat the former Vice President once again. Sure enough, RFK would rise to the occasion and light the campaign trail on fire. The optimism, would not last, however, and RFK would, like his brother five years earlier, fall to an assassin’s bullet.

The Democratic ticket collapsed over the following months and the convention wrought within turmoil both on the floor and outside on the streets of Chicago. An exasperated electorate sent Tricky Dick to the White House.

Richard Nixon, whose quest for control and reelection would ultimately lead him to resignation, scored more good news, politically at least, the following year. While driving on Martha’s Vineyard, Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge, and while able to save himself, left the fate of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne to fate. Not even reporting the incident, police would later find the body of the woman not his wife and touching off a new scandal authorities charged the Senator with nothing. This incident, explosive as it was in Massachusetts, where Kennedy faced no political upheaval, essentially derailed any hopes of another Kennedy Presidential run in the immediate future. Between charges of privilege and outright corruption among the Kennedys the Bay State authorities, and the Senator himself, Nixon could only salivate at having bested the Kennedys out of their own hubris. Nixon was reelected in 1972.

The Chappaquiddick incident, named after the island off Martha’s Vineyard where the accident took place, might be seen as the first of three crucial events in the life of Senator Edward Kennedy as the Kennedy family torchbearer.

Kennedy continued to the serve in the Senate during the waning days of Vietnam and through the drudgery of the Watergate investigation. Nixon would resign before Articles of Impeachment could pass the House and formally put the matter before Kennedy and his 99 colleagues. Despite that the nation handed the presidency back to the Democrats in the well-intentioned, but ultimately overwhelmed hands of Jimmy Carter. His presidency beset by high inflation, the first significant breakdown in the economy since Korea and the Iranian hostage crisis. Taking his place an heir to a legacy, Ted Kennedy would challenge the president for the Democratic nomination in 1980.

The campaign would come at a rocky time for Kennedy. His marriage to Joan Bennett was falling apart, but the two stayed together during campaign. When it became clear, that Kennedy would not be replacing Carter at the top of the ticket, Teddy experienced the second event. With his ambitions for the presidency quashed, Teddy resigned himself to the Senate. His marriage would end in 1982, but between Reagan’s conservative pushes and budget cuts and popular appeal, Kennedy might at last have a cause and a face for its enemy.

Alongside Tip O’Neill the Speaker of the House from Cambridge, Mass, Ted Kennedy would fight tooth and nail for the funding and the programs the poor needed. Despite Reagan’s push and seeming popular support, millions of dollars were saved for countless federal program while still others were brought to life. Although liberalism would not have much support in the White House for twelve years, Kennedy’s own brand of politics centered less on horse-trading and more on congeniality and passion would earn the necessary votes and the signature of presidents such as George H.W. Bush’s on the American’s with Disabilities Act.

Despite the political passion and success, lurid details of Kennedy’s personal life would surface in the tabloid press. Eventually, the decadence would catch up to him once again, but this time landing him on the witness stand. His nephew, William K. Smith, son of this only surviving sister, Jean, was accused of rape. The trial provided fresh meat to reporters on the details of the Kennedy’s privilege and lack of responsibility. However, that was not the final event. Rather it merely set the stage for it.

Three years later, Ted Kennedy would face his toughest campaign for Senator. Five times after first being elected in 1962, Kennedy faced no real opposition. However, a young upstart, the son of a former Midwestern governor and cabinet secretary would give Kennedy a jolt. After years of assuming his image in Massachusetts could never be tarnished enough, Kennedy realized he needed something of a makeover. Kennedy fought harder and longer in the Senate and on the campaign trail, taking nothing for granted. He held his own against his challenger, Mitt Romney in debates and ultimately won reelection. During this time, he began dating and ultimately married Victoria Reggie, the daughter of a family friend. Cleaning himself up for the first time, for those willing to forgive him, he had restored his image to Massachusetts voters, if not many more across the country.

That year, was nonetheless a Republican’s year and the GOP took the Senate along with the House of Representatives. Kennedy would lose his chairmanship, but through friends like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, was able to make deals and push for the rights of workers, the elderly, children, immigrants, and the uninsured. Even as health care reform went overboard in 1994, he still worked tirelessly not only for Massachusetts, but for all Americans.

However, his influence would prove invaluable from everything from securing federal funding to keeping the state from losing another seat in Congress in 2000. By the early 2000’s the hot issue was education and assuming that he could wrangle the same promises from George Bush the younger, Kennedy secured passage of No Child Left Behind. The bill would become a disaster for countless school districts as its standards remained in force even as the necessary federal funding failed to materialize. It is hard to know if Kennedy felt at all betrayed as a result of this, but it certainly seems possible.

In 2004, at least a small part of John Kerry’s defeat may be laid at the feet of Kennedy. Although an enthusiastic supporter of his fellow Bay Stater from the beginning, John Kerry’s reputation in the Senate paled in comparison to that of his counterpart. Simply put, Kennedy outshined Kerry on their worst and best days respectively. This is no indictment, but merely a statement of fact, given the political star power Kennedy had ever since he was born. However, the events of 2004 would come back to both bless and haunt Kennedy and his fellow Democrats in the years to come in other ways.

With Kerry defeated, but still in the Senate, Kennedy like other Democrats no doubt wondered who would carry their party forward. The year Bush took his second oath of office did not bode well for the Democrats who were only a hair’s breath from a filibuster-proof Senate majority. However, both an exasperated public and perhaps even the divine would not allow this to endure.

A string of violent outbreaks in Iraq, a number of Republic corruption scandals and Hurricane Katrina broke Republican’s grip on power. An ill-conceived and ill-planned attempt at Social Security eroded GOP credibility on policy as Democrats at last had their own issue that would resonate with voters. Democrats seized control of both houses in 2006.

The following year, with Bush reduced to a lame duck and both parties clamoring for new leaders, the 2008 presidential campaign began. Not too far into the 2007, freshman Senator Barack Obama, who spoke in Boston at the Democratic Convention that nominated Kerry, announced his own campaign for the presidency. Ted Kennedy’s colleague from New York, the former First Lady Hillary Clinton had also declared his candidacy.

A year later, despite significant ties to the Clintons, Kennedy, along with his son Patrick, now a Congressman from Rhode Island, and his niece Caroline, endorsed Barack Obama. Although his push to glean support for the Illinois Senator would be ignored in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the move was heavily symbolic. Still a few weeks before that fateful diagnosis, Kennedy was acknowledging both the need and heralding the entry of new leaders on the political stage.

Kennedy would not be able to take part in the euphoria of Obama’s eventual victory over Clinton for long. In the summer of 2008, following a series of seizures Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer. Initial prognoses offered little hope and Kennedy traveled to North Carolina to consult with doctors and undergo surgery. Despite his infirmed state, Kennedy made a surprise--and his last--appearance at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver.

As the economic situation deteriorated, some of the work Kennedy had undertaken over the years became more important as part of that safety net he helped construct became all the more noticeable and needed. It would be that bad economy that made Barack Obama’s election to the presidency all but certain.

As the 111th Congress was gaveled into session the following year, legislators including Kennedy set to work on a wide number of issues. Health Care, a perennial favorite of Kennedy’s would quickly make it to the fore. Kennedy would make appearances in Washington, including on the Senate floor to push for reforms, but these would become increasingly infrequent occurrences. The issue would be pushed ahead as delay and work on economic stimulus took up Congress and the President’s time for the first half of 2009.

In July, Kennedy’s older surviving sister Eunice passed away. Her death returned the spotlight to Ted’s own health. Not too long after, Kennedy spoke out in favor of changing the state’s law that replaces US senators to allow for an interim appointment by the governor. The call was derided by some who noted that the law had be unscrupulously changed by Beacon Hill Democrat who feared then-governor Mitt Romney would appoint a Democrat to serve out John Kerry’s should the later win the White House in 2004. A short time thereafter, Kennedy died at his home in Hyannis Port.

It is impossible to know, now what Kennedy thought of his life. What he dwelled on and what he was able to let go. Equally impossible to know is how the powers that be have viewed the life of Edward Kennedy. What can be said, perhaps as a function of the greater time he had on Earth or not, Edward Kennedy was not only able to surpass his brothers in legislative achievement. He also had the chance to evolve and mature. To take the darkest moments, namely those brought on by himself, and channel them into something and something greater than himself. That passion and that drive to stand up for the little guys, could not have come from altruism alone. It was the product of suffering and doubt, but in the end, hopefully, it was the catharsis he sought. In any event, it is the legacy he left.

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