Ted Kennedy “last politician with truly firm convictions”

William Holt (USA, AC 09-11)


To the believers, he was the liberal lion of the American senate; to his detractors, a bawdy caricature of the left wing. After dismissing these partisan divisions for simply what they are, petty divisions, one can’t deny the presence, the sheer command over politics in the United States, of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.


On May 17, 2008 Kennedy suffered two consecutive seizures at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.  He was air-lifted to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  There, the diagnosis turned grave.  Teddy, the last of the Brothers Kennedy, the last standing patriarch of America’s Camelot, was dying of a brain tumor.  The best doctors in the country, in Boston and at Duke, projected him to last only another year.


True to this prediction, the end came for Ted on August 25, 2009.  The body was borne by motorcade from Hyannis Port to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Dorchester, where it lay in repose for two days.  During this period, in which the doors were open to public viewing, over 50,000 people filed past to pay their respects: presidents, senators, foreign dignitaries, Bay Staters and Americans. The entire socioeconomic spectrum was on parade for the sake of a man who made it his life’s work to do away with class distinction.


During these couple of days, going into Boston for anything other than tribute was unthinkable.  Traffic, brought to less than a crawl, choked every artery of every highway leading toward the city.  The Governor was urging mourners to take public transportation, to walk; every functioning bus, subway and train owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority was in full use, and the entire state seemed turned inward to its capital as if in deep reflection.


On the day of the Senator’s death, I had gone into town to see a movie.  Preparations for the wake and funeral were already underway, and the mourners were pouring in from in-state and beyond. A billboard stood on the edge of the highway sparkling like a beacon in the August sunlight, with the most famous words of Kennedy’s career–a clarion cry for liberalism, a declaration of its longevity and relevance–flashing importantly against the sky. These were the closing words of Ted Kennedy’s greatest speech, his concession of the Democratic presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter right before the nation would be plunged into a long and disheartening decade of Reaganomics.  These were words of hope for the poor in an era without any, for the Destitute during twelve long years without sympathy, urging them to look onward in spite of their government’s indifference—to look toward a time when the promises of their nation’s founding fathers would at last be met: “For all those whose cares have been our concerns, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”


As a fellow son of Massachusetts, I defend the Kennedys with the blind passion of a monarchist.  I take immense pride in the fact that my family has cast votes for Jack, Bobby and Ted on both state and national levels since the 1950s.  Of course, you must consider that this is merely the bias of a New Englander, of a faithful Democrat practically since birth, steeped in the traditions of Bay State liberalism.  Nevertheless, I hold these convictions strongly, and maintain an unerring belief in Edward Kennedy and the political ideals and dynasty he represented.  Thus, it is with profound sorrow that I mourn the loss of my senator, for my town, my state, and my country.


Born into the insular, privileged world of Beacon Hill, into the burgeoning dynasty of Joseph P. Kennedy and a family fortune made by film, production, liquor, and stocks, Ted made a peculiar choice in careers for someone of his background.  It is not so much strange that he became a politician– for a Kennedy, this is practically granted–but that, belonging to the “upper” crust, he devoted his working life to those with no such advantages. He could have whiled away his years with ease and comfort, and instead spent them lobbying and grinding ahead for the nation’s poor.  Kennedy dedicated himself to fighting the social injustices and dead-end labyrinths of class mobility in the United States, the stagnancy that he himself was never victim of, was never forced to navigate. 


From his brothers, Ted seemed the least likely to realize any of the dreams he became famous for, for so long.  He was the reluctant heir, the very last in a line of more fitting successors, growing up in the impressive shadows of Jack and Bobby.  He was not blessed with their boyish charms, nor the cool temperaments and breezy good looks that largely made their careers.  He was instead cursed with the family propensity for alcohol and women, crippled by these inherent vices for a lifetime while his brothers never suffered the effects.


Empowered by the family checkbook and its considerable sway over the inner-workings of Boston politics, Kennedy enrolled at Harvard where he majored in government, and played a starring role on the university football team.  He then studied law at the University of Virginia, on a campus forever influenced in liberal temperament by the mind of its chief architect, Thomas Jefferson.  During these years, Kennedy married for the first time, to Joan Bennett, with whom he had three children.  His was a marriage tainted by alcohol and infidelities, a continuation of the same kind of relationships propagated by Jack and Bobby.  In 1982, Joan pursued a divorce.


The years that followed were marked by misdirection, or rather, no direction at all.  Kennedy searched for purpose, for the convictions of his brothers, but found himself simply going through the motions.  In 1952, he served as campaign manager for Jack’s second bid for the Massachusetts Senate Seat, and stumped for his presidential run in 1960–jobs that might as well have been handed to him on a silver platter.  Two years later, he took that senate seat practically by right of succession (it has been kept warm during the interim by a Kennedy loyalist).


Ted’s election to the U.S. senate, despite what questions it may raise, is not without historical significance.  Only 30 years old (the minimum age at which one can run for a seat in congress) and challenging the son of one of New England’s oldest, Waspiest dynasties (Henry Cabot Lodge), Kennedy found triumph almost simultaneously with his older brother and his ascension to the White House.  In both elections, the victory was on the part of the minority, coming out of one of America’s most conservative decades.  Irish Catholics, the youthful sons of immigrants, had defeated the old guard, and the more antiquated elements of American politics were finally dying out.  Now was the New Frontier, the dawn of a new age of progressive liberalism.


On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.  Not five years later, the same fate befell his brother Robert, shot in the Ambassador Hotel’s ballroom in Los Angeles, after California had just won the elections for that state’s Democratic Primary.  He died one day later, on June 6, 1968.  It suddenly seemed the idealism that both campaigns had been launched upon had died out, and cynicism had taken root.  Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed in the crucible of racial injustice and President Johnson’s Great Society was foundering.


Now it was Ted who had to assume the mantle of his brothers, to live out the promises of their campaigns.  Yet one cannot call Jack and Bobby martyrs; the family’s flaws must always be taken into account, as well as what damage they wreak onto those who have lived long enough under their governance. Regardless, they will be forever young, ravishing and handsome.  They left this world before the hard living–the drinking, the womanizing–could catch up with them.  With Ted, however, the sins were able to extract their toll, and they did so mercilessly.  He put on weight; his family disintegrated and his life fell into shambles.  It is remarkable that in the wake of all that befell him, he was able to salvage any career at all; a miracle that it became so monumental.


Of course, the resurrection does not hide the appalling nature of the fall, and for years, the incident at Chappaquiddick hung like a pall over Kennedy’s career.  It proved to be the most divisive moment for his constituents and his critics, the kind that alters someone’s life irrevocably.  The scandal in question preceded Ted’s scheduled run for the presidency, and dashed all his hopes for being elected to office during the years that ensued.


In July of 1969, Kennedy hosted a reunion for a group of women who had worked on Bobby’s campaign one year prior, on Chappaquiddick, a small island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.  After the party, Kennedy offered to drive 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel in Edgartown.  The events that followed are to this day shrouded in mystery and doubt, blurred by a family history of alcohol and infidelities.  Driving down an unlit, dirt road, Kennedy took a wrong turn.  His car went over a narrow, unrailed wooden bridge, and crashed into the water below.  He managed to save himself from the wreckage of the sinking auto, but Kopechne was not so fortunate.  She drowned, and Kennedy did not return to the wreck until morning.


Kennedy received a two-month sentence as punishment for leaving the scene of an accident and contributing, through negligent driving, to the causes of death.  The guilt that Kennedy suffered, and the damage his career weathered, would last a lifetime.


In tragedy, the rise comes before the fall.  But for Edward Kennedy, who lifted himself from the ashes of scandal, who wore his sins as a heavy burden but nevertheless persevered to claim prominence in–and relevance to–American politics, the inverse of the maxim rings are far truer.  Despite a failed run for the presidency in 1980, Ted’s career and his legacy would endure long beyond death, proving that a good senator is a man of as much consequence as any president.


In 1965, Kennedy gave his support to the Voting Rights Act (one of the foremost pieces of legislation in the history of American civil rights) and saw it to fruition.  He was the leading architect behind the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which lent support to community organizing and service groups; he was also behind the Freedom of Information Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Occupational Safety and Wealth Act, and a slew of others for the democratization of a nation far too privatized.  Kennedy served as senator for Massachusetts for 46 yeas, and in the years between Nixon and Bush, became the last, great unwavering voice for liberalism and true democracy in the United States.  Throughout his career, the name “Edward M. Kennedy” has appeared on more than 2,000 separate pieces of legislation, more than double most any of his fellow members of Congress.  Until his death, he served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, striving to complete what he often called the one unrealized goal on the Democratic agenda: universal health care.  To be sure, it would be a testament to Kennedy and his service to this nation if this goal were realized.  After his death, the pundits seemed to agree that the Senator’s death would be the impetus that President Obama’s public option needs to gain the requisite support in congress–I certainly hope so, for the sake of an ailing system in the only industrialized country with a life expectancy of less than 78 years. 


With the death of Edward Kennedy, the final chapter of the family dynasty has drawn to a close.  Now, we look toward the latest generation of Camelot, hoping, perhaps in vain, for a successor.  It does not seem that one is likely to emerge; for who could do justice to the legacy?  Who could reach across both sides of the aisle on the senate floor with such rhetoric, such wit, such charm?  It seems to me that no politician in the United States is capable of the precarious balancing act that made Ted Kennedy such a looming figure on the grand stage of American politics.  He was an anomaly, the last politician with any truly firm convictions and the only man in recent memory likely to endure in the annals of American history with Webster, Clay and Calhoun.  For his death, we, as a nation, are poorer.  And today, Massachusetts looks with skepticism at an uncertain political future.


– United World College Student Magazine 


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