The Third Senator Kennedy
Was In For the Long Term,
His Influence Grew Steadily
By Henry J. Stern
August 26, 2009
One cannot write today without discussing the remarkable life and career of Senator Ted Kennedy.
His great gifts, many developed later in life, were for many years overshadowed by his spectacularly illustrious family, which included three martyred brothers – a President, a Senator, and a naval aviator – and by his own missteps which for many others would have been career-ending. He survived all this, and an airplane crash in Massachusetts in June 1964, which killed the pilot and an aide to the Senator and broke Kennedy’s back. Two others on the plane, Senator Birch Bayh and his wife, Marvella, were relatively uninjured, and Birch pulled Kennedy from the wreckage.
Kennedy’s physical strength enabled him to escape in late July 1969 (the weekend of the first lunar landing) from a submerged car he had driven off a wooden bridge that curved sharply over Poucha Pond, an inlet near Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard. The bridge led to a local beach. Unfortunately, he was unable to rescue his drowning companion or report the accident to the police for nine hours, during which time numerous long distance phone calls were made to advisers from the Kennedy compound.
It is widely believed that this incident cost him the Democratic nomination for President in 1980, when he challenged a feckless Jimmy Carter, the incumbent. If Kennedy had been the nominee, he would have had to face Ronald Reagan, with Southern states possibly irritated by the Democrats dumping Carter. If not for Chappaquiddick, however, he might have run for President in 1972, when he could have lost to Nixon, or in 1976, when he would have beaten Gerald Ford, as Carter did. Ted Kennedy was a contender, but he could have been the champion. The extent of blood loyalty was shown earlier when the Kennedys blocked brother-in-law Sargent Shriver (Eunice’s husband) from consideration for vice president. Shriver was nominated for vice president in 1972, when Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton withdrew after it was discovered that he had undergone electroshock for depression. McGovern-Shriver carried one state, Massachusetts. Twelve years later Mondale-Ferraro captured one state, Minnesota. The Democrats were not always the majority party.
Of course, Ted Kennedy’s presence in the ring itself was due to the accident of his birth, and the tragic early deaths of his older brothers. What is remarkable about his life is the distinguished and constructive career he had in the Senate for 45 years, where as one out of a hundred, he became a highly effective member, forming alliances with Republicans to pass legislation As a senator, he was persuasive rather than threatening, but his legislative achievements over the years were comparable with those of Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy formed coalitions to pass bills on civil rights, education, labor and health. His monuments are in the statute books.
We do not, in this relatively brief article, discuss the specifics of his legislative achievements; they are set out in many of today’s obituaries.
During his Senate career, Kennedy’s personal life continued to be dogged by misfortune: his first wife’s longtime alcoholism, his older son’s cancer, his younger son’s (the Congressman from Rhode Island) battles with addiction. His nephew was tried for rape and acquitted.
The Senator himself was stricken with an inoperable brain tumor just when a Democratic President with an ambitious legislative agenda took office. He had a seizure at the inaugural luncheon in the Capitol. He had supported Obama for President over Hillary Clinton, whom he had known longer. His illness coincided with the transfer of power to a new generation, yet he would have been enormously influential as a senior Senator. It is likely that the complex issues involved in health care legislation would have been handled somewhat differently if Senator Ted Kennedy had been available to exert stronger influence on the bill and on Congress.
There will be many eulogies in the weeks to come. Kennedy’s death is a far greater loss to the nation than Michael Jackson’s passing, no disrespect intended to the singer. The Senator will be sanctified by some and excoriated by a handful. He belongs in Arlington National Cemetery with his brothers.
Over the years, we have thought of Teddy Kennedy with an admiration mixed with skepticism. He now departs, having earned enormous respect for his accomplishments, which are largely the result of his interpersonal skills and his commitment to social justice. Having emerged from his family drama, he worked effectively, using his gifts of leadership for almost a half century to help less fortunate Americans to improve their lives and share the blessings of liberty. It is a legacy worthy of the Senator and the Kennedy family, from whose giant shadow he has long since emerged.
StarQuest #588 08.26.2009 780 wds