“After all is said and done, Ted Kennedy is still the man in American politics Republicans love to hate,” Republican strategist Lee Atwater, himself the victim of brain cancer, observed in 1990. Though attitudes toward Senator Kennedy softened because of his illness, he remained a figure with few admirers who weren’t also colleagues, constituents, or political fellow travelers. Kennedy votaries who dismiss criticisms of the late senator as the product of partisanship or ideological bitterness tell themselves a comforting lie. Scores of Democrats shared Kennedy’s politics. None elicited the heated response in conservative direct mail, campaign ads, or red-meat speeches. Ted Kennedy’s politics, rather than blinding conservatives to Ted Kennedy’s virtues, blinded liberals to his vices — which were large and many.
The caricature that Ann Richards and others painted of George H.W. Bush — “born on third base and thought that he hit a triple” — more resembled Ted Kennedy, a gregarious rogue enabled by wealth, power, and a famous last name. The privilege that shielded the playboy senator from the consequences of his actions acted as a double-edge sword by ensuring that he also never learned from the mistakes he didn’t suffer from.
Despite ranking in the bottom half of his class at Milton Academy, Ted Kennedy matriculated into America’s most prestigious university in 1950. Grades? He was a Kennedy. His three older brothers and father had graduated from Harvard. Why couldn’t he? Unable to perform in the classroom as he performed on the football field, the youngest of the Kennedy brood hired a classmate to take his Spanish exam. Those who had bent the rules to admit him abided by them in expelling him. Joe Kennedy was furious — that his son got caught, not that he cheated.
When the immature Kennedy impulsively enlisted in the Army to save face, he discovered that his contract obliged him to a longer period of service, and exposed him to the dangers of combat. An outraged Joe Kennedy responded, “Don’t you even look at what you’re signing?” His father, one of the richest men in America, “fixed” the matter with a few phone calls. Ted’s four-year contract became a two-year stint, and the possibility of a soldier’s life on the front lines in Korea was rectified with a posh assignment in Paris guarding NATO’s headquarters.
Ted Kennedy is perhaps the only senator who never — save for his Army respite from Harvard — held a steady paying job prior to landing one in that august body. This infuriated his opponent, Edward McCormack, in the 1962 Massachusetts Democratic primary. “If his name was Edward Moore, with his qualifications,” the state’s attorney general remarked in a debate, “your candidacy would be a joke.” But starting at the top was the Kennedy way. If Joseph Kennedy could go from stock swindler to chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Robert Kennedy could become attorney general of the United States without ever having tried a case in court, then certainly President Kennedy’s kid brother could, just three years out of law school, win a place in the U.S. Senate.
“Of course, I’m hurt,” Edward McCormack reflected immediately after his loss. “I think it’s unjust that he should even try for the nomination. Two years ago, I led all candidates in this state at the polls. Right now I hold the most important elective office held in this state by a Democrat. Then along came Teddy Kennedy out of the blue. If this is politics, if they can get away with this, then I don’t want any part of politics.”
A few years later, Ted Kennedy got away with it again. After finishing ninth in a field of 31 in a regatta, Kennedy spent a Saturday partying with six unmarried women and a group of married men. Pounding rum and cokes, Kennedy absconded from the booze barbecue with Mary Jo Kopechne, whom he drove to her death off a narrow, unlit bridge without guardrails. For almost ten hours, the senator dried out, called numerous acquaintances, and tried to get his cousin to go along with a cover story that Kopechne had been alone at the wheel — but did nothing to alert authorities to his party companion’s plight. Political fixers fixed him with a neck brace, produced a renewed driver’s license for the unlicensed senator, and released incomplete phone records — exposed by the New York Times a decade later — that erased the calls he made between the time of the accident and the time of his reporting it. Characteristic of the treatment he had received his whole life, Kennedy avoided jail and overwhelmingly won reelection the next year. His mother responded by initially disinheriting Ted’s cousin, her orphaned nephew, who refused to go along with her son’s subterfuge.
Like his previous mistakes, the accident did nothing to alter Kennedy’s misbehavior. Here, caught in broad daylight in the marital act on the floor of a posh Washington restaurant. There, waking his son and nephew to carouse the Palm Beach bars on Good Friday — leading to accusations of a rape occurring within earshot of the senator. Whereas assassinations and World War II kept his older brothers forever young, Ted’s reckless behavior made him the Peter Pan of the Senate. Though his jet-black hair turned snow white, and his football physique transformed into a Fritos physique, Ted Kennedy remained in suspended adolescence for most of his 47 years in the elected office.
Insulated by the consequences of his behavior, Kennedy was also shielded from the consequences of his policies. He was the champion of busing who kept his own children far from the public schools; an advocate of publicly funded campaigns who bankrolled his political career with his family’s shadowy financing; an icon of feminists who used women like Kleenex, serially harassed members of the opposite sex, and spent ten hours attempting to rescue his political career as he denied the young women suffocating in an air pocket in his Oldsmobile professional rescue attempts; and the primary booster of socialized medicine who assembled a dream team of neurosurgeons to consult on his treatment for brain cancer. The proverbial limousine liberal was made real in Trustfund Ted.
Particularly galling to Senator Kennedy’s amazed antagonists was the manner in which those that he wronged rewarded rather than punished their transgressor. Edward McCormack’s family chose Kennedy to deliver a eulogy at his funeral. In anticipation of the 1976 race for the presidency, Joe and Gwen Kopechne offered that they would cast their votes for Kennedy should he run. More than a half century after expelling Ted Kennedy, Harvard awarded him an honorary degree and celebrated him at The Game, where Harvard Stadium’s confused spectators were left wondering how Ted Kennedy ’54 could have caught a touchdown pass in the 1955 Harvard-Yale game.
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” Ted eulogized slain brother Bobby in 1969. More than four decades later, Ted Kennedy’s conservative detractors are wondering why the senator’s admirers aren’t heeding such advice.