Patriarch and lion, fireproof senator for more than four decades, persecuted by the shadow of the president he could not be, zealous guardian of a saga that remains orphaned and without a possible heir. Edward Moore Kennedy died at the age of 77. A cerebral tumor detected months ago ended his life. The last great survivor of the clan could not elude the tragedy.
He was the patriarch of the Kennedys since 1968, after Robert’s life was taken in the heat of the electoral campaign, and the then recent murder of JFK in Dallas (1963). His father Joseph, who would die a year later, did not doubt in passing the scepter to his third musketeer (the fourth son, Joe Jr., died in a plane crash). But the youngest of the family wasn’t so sure and decided to look for answers in New England.
He returned with an inflated chest. “Nobody is safe hiding. Like my brothers before myself I take a fallen standard. Based in the memory of every year that we were together, I will try to carry out the special commitment for justice, excellence and anger that distinguished their lives.” The luck was there and the young senator, 36-years-old, seemed like the living reincarnation of his two brothers, with a less glamorous and dreamy look, but equally ambitious. Determined on demonstrating that it was possible to be progressive and pragmatic, he began making merits for his future candidacy to the White House.
A summer later, on the same coast, he dug his own political grave. It happened leaving Chappaquiddick in Martha’s Vineyard, where Obama spends the summers these days. Ted Kennedy was behind the steering wheel of an Oldsmobile, returning from a celebration and accompanied by 28-year-old youngster Mary Jo Kopechne. The car left the highway on a bridge and was submerged. Kennedy got out of it unharmed, but his companion died under strange circumstances. The senator never alerted the police and days later he publicly requested a pardon for his “inexplicable” and “indefensible” behavior.
The tragic incident, still surrounded by mystery, definitively dimmed his future. He tried to give it a first try in the 1980 Democratic primaries, and although the basic militants cheered “Kennedy, Kennedy” with enthusiasm in Madison Square Garden, he ultimately wavered before Jimmy Carter.
His personal tragedy was always a weight, and in the need to protect his privacy and the good reputation of the family, or what there was left of it, he decided to indefinitely postpone his return to the presidential rotation.
In ‘82 he divorced Joan Bennett – they had three children, she would marry again – and 10 years later he was surrounded in another turbid episode when his nephew William was accused of raping a woman he had met in a club in Florida, on a trip accompanied by Ted and his son, now Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who has a history of incidents comparable with his father due to addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers.
The dark legend wouldn’t go without another myth, the one of the lion of the Senate. “I believe that after 1980, when he assumed that he could not be president, he understood that a Senate position is very powerful and important, and he strived to do it as well as possible,” states Stephen Hess, author of American Political Dynasties.
Ted Kennedy has entered history as one of six senators who managed to break the barrier of 40 years in the Senate, with great accomplishments on his shoulders, like the Civil Rights Act of ‘64, the Right to Vote Act of ’65, and the Americans with Incapacities Act of 1990. The fight against racial discrimination, and those for gender equality, education and health were his battle horses.
In critical condition is the subject of universal healthcare, considered to be the flag in his political life. In 1994, he made it a cause with Bill and Hillary Clinton to impel healthcare reform, which was defeated by the power of the lobbyists and Republican refusal.
Hardly one week ago, already foreseeing his own end, Ted Kennedy wrote a letter to Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick, asking him to review the law and accelerate the proceedings in the Senate to cover his vacancy so that his “successor” could endorse Obama on universal healthcare.
Another rooster would sing at this point if Kennedy had been in shape during these first turbulent months of Obama’s administration. Despite having turned into one of the favorite targets of the ultraconservatives, old Ted enjoyed the respect and favor of a good handful of Republican senators, with whom he had forged old alliances – although relations had dwindled due to his obstinate opposition to the Iraq War.
“Kennedy always accounted the importance of achieving commitments with the opposition to obtain vital reforms,” says Hess, biographer of dynasties, which emphasizes the great emptiness felt in the family without a worthy heir to the triumvirate that made history.
Perhaps for that reason, and knowing already that he was in the decline of his life, Ted Kennedy gave Obama that paternal hug at the most critical moment of the primaries. The black candidate had just won the race in South Carolina and although the battle with Hillary was still in the air, all was clear to Ted and he didn’t want to wait. In Washington, in the company of his favorite niece, Caroline, he proclaimed Obama to be the successor to JFK. Shortly after, the announcement of the cerebral tumor got to him. Even so, and in spite of doctors’ advice, Kennedy conquered the sky to attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver and then wanted to be at the coronation of the candidate. He insisted on being in the first row during the investiture this past January. He was later taken in an ambulance, apparently due to indigestion.
The only doubt since then was how many months he had left in that seat inherited in 1962 when it was left vacant by John F. Kennedy. Obama distinguished him recently with the Medal of Freedom.
In spite of the obvious comparisons, Ted strived to do things his own way, including the affairs of his youth. He was expelled from Harvard because he let another student take his Spanish examination. Re-admitted two years later, he received his master’s degree in political science and shortly after in law at the University of Virginia. He learned the arts of politics as head of JFK’s campaign and exerted not only the air of a patriarch, but also as a father of more than a dozen children after the murder of his two brothers.
Eunice, his sister, passed away on August 11. Ted was already so weak that he didn’t even make it to her burial. His last goodbye would be in Arlington, Virginia, in the cemetery of American heroes.
Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy was born in Boston on February 22, 1932 and died in Hyannis Port on the 25th of August 2009.
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