Ted Kennedy: An AssessmentS

Edward Kennedy, the last surviving son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, was the third-longest serving US Senator of all time. He was a drunken degenerate. And he might've been the best argument for the US Senate ever elected.

Kennedy's parents, corrupt political fixer Joseph Kennedy and strict Rose Fitzgerald, had grand ambitions for their sons Joseph Jr., John, and Robert. But Ted, the baby, was allowed, or maybe expected, to be a charming lightweight. The family mocked him for being fatter and slower than his superstar brothers, and he accepted their ridicule good-naturedly.

In the 40s, the family disasters began stacking up: his sister Rosemary was lobotomized and institutionalized. Siblings Joe Jr. and Kathleen died. All this by the time Teddy was 16.

When brother Jack, a sitting Senator, ran for president in 1960, the family sent Teddy out on the thankless and impossible task of winning the Western States. When he failed (not costing Jack the election, thankfully), he expressed a desire to stay out west, with his wife Joan. With his brothers in DC running the nation, Ted wanted to lay low and perhaps work toward a political career on his own terms.

"The disadvantage of my position," he told an interviewer, "is being constantly compared with two brothers of such superior ability."

But Joe told him to move to Massachusetts and take Jack's Senate seat, and so Ted did. He won a bruising primary battle with the very grudging support of his brothers and cruised to victory, whereupon Jack was suddenly gunned down. In the summer of 1964, Ted was in a plane crash that killed one man and nearly paralyzed him for life. (His recuperation provided him an opportunity to educate himself, at least.) And in 1968, his brother Bobby, then running for president (because he saw Eugene McCarthy draw blood from LBJ and decided to go in for the kill himself), was assassinated in California. And so, Teddy, the dumb one, was now, at 36, the last Kennedy brother. He declined to seek the nomination for the presidency, not knowing that he'd kill his chances forever the following year.

Ted was a drunk, and he fucked around. That was true his entire life. He was an intellectually lazy, louche rich kid, whose family bought him his education, his job, and even found him an acceptable wife. He got kicked out of Harvard for cheating in 1950, and when the Boston Globe threatened to reveal this fact as Ted campaigned to be a senator, the president, Ted's brother, invited the reporter over to make sure that the actual news get pushed to paragraph 5 and the headline remained vague.

So when, in 1969, he got wasted and drove a car off a bridge, killing a woman he'd left a party with, without brothers or a father to take care of it, it is not surprising that he did not know what to do. Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a former employee of Bobby's, were driving back to Edgartown, or to the beach, or who knows where. Kennedy drove off a narrow bridge with no guardrail into the water, but escaped the sinking car. Kopechne drowned.

Ted was almost certainly drunk, possibly concussed, and probably in shock. He walked back to the party and told the hosts what happened, whereupon they drove him back to the ferry landing. Kennedy says he swam back to Edgartown, went back to his hotel room, and went to bed. The next morning, he called friends for advice (this is when his father, who'd suffered a debilitating stroke years earlier, would've come in handy). When the car, and the body, were recovered, Ted went to the police. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury and received a suspended sentence of two months. And that was basically the end of his chance at the presidency.

The '70s? He did nothing in the '70s, until they ended, and he decided to challenge Jimmy Carter, whom he'd never liked. He didn't even really want to be president, it just seemed like now or never. He lost, and gave the best speech of his entire career at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, and then he buckled down to become one hell of a legislator and workhorse for the remainder of his years in the senate.

Oh, also he divorced his wife, hit the bottle hard, and began fucking around again even more recklessly than before. But he was the very definition of a functional alcoholic, able to achieve bipartisan compromises on important health care legislation by day and then fuck a lobbyist on the floor of a restaurant by night. He destroyed Robert Bork's chance at being on the Supreme Court, and paparazzi snapped him fucking a girl on his boat. He and Chris Dodd went out boozing and skirtchasing together. They'd later be joined by Ted's fuckup son Patrick and fuckup nephew William Kennedy Smith. After hitting the bar with son and nephew in Palm Beach in 1991, William allegedly raped one of the women he and Patrick had picked up. Ted testified. William was acquitted.

Ted remarried, to Victoria Reggie, in 1992. In 1994, He faced down the only serious threat to his senate seat ever, when Mitt Romney went after him. He won by 17 points, the narrowest margin of his career. After marrying Vikki and holding on to his seat, he largely avoided publicly embarrassing himself, and his scandalous past gradually faded from the popular consciousness.

In 2008, he bucked the Democratic party establishment and endorsed Barack Obama for president. In May, he suffered a seizure, and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. A thinner, weaker Ted Kennedy gave an impassioned speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and then he largely disappeared from the public view.

His most important legacy is the legislation he was instrumental in passing. In the end, Ted Kennedy ended up a much more influential figure in American history than his more ambitious, more driven, probably smarter brothers. From Wikipedia, an incomplete list of major Senate accomplishments:

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the National Cancer Act of 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, the COBRA Act of 1985, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act in 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Mental Health Parity Act in 1996 and 2008, the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997, the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009.

Sadly, he didn't live to see his longtime dream of national health insurance actually come to fruition. The man's many, well-documented flaws aside, he was on the right side of history, most of the time, and he did more to actually make America a better place than 90% of the careerists and charlatans who pass through the United States Senate.

And as the undemocratic institution of the Senate (and this celebration of the life of a man who won his seat due to family connections and held on to it for almost fifty years proves the anti-democratic nature of that body) continues to destroy whatever hope this nation has of governing itself responsibly, we'll miss a man who more often than most tried to show that politics can be about tangibly helping real people.

[Top photo: AP. Most of the facts and quotes in this obituary come from The Boston Globe's series "Ted Kennedy."]

At the top: a portion of Kennedy's eulogy of his brother Bobby. Below: audio of Kennedy's entire 1980 convention speech.