In tragic family, Kennedy had gift of years

For all the tragedy that fate assigned to Edward Kennedy’s family, it gave him one critical gift it denied all three of his brothers — the gift of years.

The most famous senator on Capitol Hill stood alone for decades on a unique precipice his brothers never reached. Joseph Kennedy was 29 when killed in World War II in 1944, President John F. Kennedy was 46 when assassinated in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was 42 when he was shot down in 1968.

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Edward Kennedy died late Tuesday at 77 after a long battle with brain cancer.

He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2008, underwent surgery a month later, and was then seen only sporadically in the Senate. Notable highlights included a dramatic return to the Senate floor in July 2008 — only a month after his brain surgery — to break a Republican filibuster of a Medicare bill. After a sustained round of cheering and applause, Kennedy smiled and deadpanned a dry “Aye” toward the same Senate president’s desk — the place he was sitting on Nov. 22, 1963, when told of his brother’s assassination.

Defying medical advice, Kennedy also traveled to Denver in August 2008 for a dramatic primetime speech at the Democratic National Convention, recasting his most well-known speech from the 1980 Democratic convention and vowing to be on the Senate floor to pass healthcare reform.

“So, with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause,” Kennedy said at the time. “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

But his illness forced the senator to Florida for the winter of 2009. He returned to Washington to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration but suffered a seizure later that afternoon at a Capitol lunch. He was seen only occasionally for the next several months, convalescing at his Georgetown home when in D.C. and making increasingly sporadic visits to the Senate.

In April, Kennedy made headlines by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Boston’s Fenway Park, but by midsummer had largely given up public appearances in favor of working behind the scenes by telephone. July saw him grace the cover of Newsweek magazine for an essay on health reform, calling it “the cause of my life.”

ImageBut rumors of his declining health spread throughout the summer.

In August, Kennedy’s older sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. He did not attend her funeral. Also in August, Kennedy received a Presidential Medal of Freedom award — the country’s highest civilian honor. But Kennedy did not attend the White House ceremony, sending his children instead.

Kennedy used his years, fame and influence to cut a remarkable legislative path through post-war America. Over a 46-year record, Kennedy expanded access to and protection of Americans’ right to vote, the wages they earn, the school system that teaches them, the quality of their housing and healthcare and the care they receive at the end of their lives. From civil rights to healthcare, from education to immigration, from labor laws to the Supreme Court, Kennedy’s political legacy is unmatched in its range, depth and persistence.

His outsized achievements were matched by a dark side that veered between simply boorish and desperately dissolute, dating back to a 1951 cheating scandal at Harvard. Later years brought a failed first marriage; heavy and obvious drinking; and two particularly infamous nights, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in 1969 and along Palm Beach in 1991, that brought death and dishonor.

This central dichotomy of Kennedy’s life produced extraordinary ups and downs. He could give an extraordinary speech on equal rights for women in the afternoon, then make a drunken pass at a Capitol Hill restaurant waitress in the evening.

The paradox repeated well into his later years. On Jan. 3, 1989, the senator proudly watched his second son, Patrick, sworn into public office as a Rhode Island state representative. A week later, he made headlines for a bar fight in New York City. But after his 1992 marriage, Kennedy put his playboy past behind him.

For years, Kennedy was his family’s last man standing, and he saw family members die around him over several decades. His father, famed U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, died in 1969. His mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, died in 1995. Sister Kathleen died in a 1944 plane crash. Another sister, Rosemary, underwent an unsuccessful lobotomy in 1941 and never recovered before dying in 2005. Sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and a lifelong advocate for disabled Americans, died at 88 on Aug. 11, 2009.

Kennedy also tried to step into the fatherhood roles left vacant by his elder brothers’ deaths. There, too, the path was strewn with tragedy; RFK’s son David died of a drug overdose in Florida in 1984; David’s brother Michael was killed in a skiing accident in Colorado in 1997; John Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash in 1999.

Nor was the senator’s immediate family spared. His first son, Ted Jr., lost a leg in a bout with cancer in 1973. His second son, Patrick, has had a lifelong battle with alcohol and drug abuse.

Kennedy narrowly escaped death twice in spectacular accidents that caused permanent physical injury and political damage — a plane crash in 1964 and the infamous auto accident at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts in 1969. The first nearly cost his life; the second likely cost him a chance at the presidency. Both killed people who were with him.

The final-born Kennedy son was always last.

The youngest of nine children, he was born in Boston on Feb. 22, 1932, and followed the prep-school childhood of his older brothers. His early exposure to the family’s history of bare-knuckle Boston politics was enhanced by two tumultuous years in London during his father’s service as U.S. ambassador to Britain during the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

He also followed his brothers into Harvard, in 1949, but an early brush with trouble came in 1951, when the college expelled him for cheating on a Spanish exam. Kennedy spent two years in the U.S. Army before being re-admitted to Harvard in 1953 and graduating in 1956.

Marriage to his first wife, Joan, came in 1958 as Kennedy was helping his brother John’s Senate reelection campaign. Two years later, as brother Robert was managing John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid, the youngest son was again considered less important and assigned the task of collecting votes in Western states.

After JFK was elected, Edward Kennedy briefly considered a political career in Arizona or New Mexico, or a job in the administration, but instead he followed his brother’s footsteps into the Senate. He won a Nov. 6, 1962, special election with 53 percent (and the help of his father and brothers), overcoming criticism that his candidacy, at the age of 30, was “preposterous and insulting.” The seat had been vacated by his brother’s election to the presidency and filled with a family friend.

Kennedy was presiding over the Senate on Nov. 22, 1963, when he learned of his brother’s assassination in Dallas, and spent much of the next few months ceding the spotlight to his brother Robert.

One of his first significant legislative efforts, the 1964 civil rights bill initially pushed by JFK and then by President Lyndon Johnson, was followed by Kennedy’s first brush with death. On the night of June 19, the day the Senate passed the bill, Kennedy’s small private plane crashed in heavy fog as he was flying from National Airport to West Springfield, Mass., to attend the state Democratic Party convention. Pilot Ed Zimny was killed; Kennedy aide Ed Moss died the next day. Also on the plane were Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Bayh’s wife Marvella, who both survived and pulled Kennedy from the wreckage.

He barely lived. The crash broke three vertebrae, collapsed his lung, broke three ribs and sent him into shock. Intensive care and therapy followed, and Kennedy did not leave the hospital for five months.

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The crash was largely forgotten in later years, but his movement was permanently enfeebled, and his gait was reduced in old age to a clearly painful shuffle.

Kennedy was privately opposed to his brother Robert’s 1968 presidential bid, partly because of the political danger of challenging incumbent President Johnson, but also because of the year’s violence and chaos.

Two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 4 assassination, the senator was watching TV in a San Francisco hotel room when he saw his sole surviving brother lying shot on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen in Los Angeles. He declined a draft movement at the 1968 Democratic Convention that August and spent the following months again avoiding the spotlight.

Before long, however, it found him. On July 19, 1969, Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts after a party for former Robert Kennedy staffers. With him in the car was a young aide, Mary Jo Kopechne.

She drowned in the car; Kennedy swam to safety and left the scene without notifying authorities until the following day. He received a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, dodged prosecution in a 1970 inquest and avoided political persecution by giving a televised address offering an explanation.

Kopechne’s death was a permanent blot on Kennedy’s career, and claims of a cover-up persisted for decades. At a press conference in 1994, a quarter-century after the incident, Kennedy referred to Chappaquiddick as “a tragedy which I’ve expressed responsibility for and which I live with every day of my life.”

The 1970s were supposed to be Kennedy’s prime years as presidential timber, but Kopechne’s death, the political strength of President Richard Nixon’s first term and fear of the tragic fate of his brothers nudged him away from seeking the office. Instead, he maintained his appeal to Massachusetts’s voters, winning by 62 percent in 1970 and 69 percent in 1976.

Constantly circling around the idea of an Edward Kennedy presidency in the 1970s was the ominous prospect of a third Kennedy assassination. A special buzzer was installed under Kennedy’s receptionist’s desk so that the Senate police could be quickly alerted in the event of an emergency.

ImageWith the chaos of the 1960s behind him, the 1970s saw Kennedy assume his first real leadership positions among Senate Democrats and notch significant legislative accomplishments. Tapped as majority whip in 1969 and as Health subcommittee chairman in 1971, he successfully pushed to lower the country’s voting age to 18, passed legislation to improve nutrition programs for children and seniors and expanded legal services and other domestic aid to the disabled and the poor.

He also introduced changes to campaign finance laws, anti-discrimination laws for women in higher education and major expansions of civil rights laws to include the disabled. These and other achievements brought him the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1979.

After passing up presidential bids in 1972 and 1976, Kennedy dived into the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries by announcing his candidacy against the Democratic incumbent, President Carter, in 1979. Carter was widely unpopular — damaged by high inflation, unemployment and the Iran hostage crisis — but nevertheless beat Kennedy easily in the early primaries. A string of late victories prompted Kennedy to stay in the race until the summer convention in New York City, where his brief and uncomfortable appearance at the podium with the victor signaled that there had been no rapprochement between them.

Kennedy surprised many by revealing himself as weak on the stump, according to campaign chronicles such as Watershed by Time magazine’s John Stacks. Rambling, stumbling speeches and borderline-hostile press coverage did not help. Stacks’s book describes him as “a sideshow” and “a self-parody.”

“Carter had not won the nomination so much as Kennedy had lost it,” Stacks wrote, noting that Carter stayed holed up in the White House and campaigned for only a single day through the nine-month primary season.

But Kennedy’s well-written, well-delivered convention speech, quoting Tennyson and referring to his dead brothers, is often considered his finest hour. Republicans, however, captured the presidency and the Senate that November, dimming Kennedy’s influence in the 1980s. The final dissolution of his 24-year marriage to Joan Bennett followed in 1982.

Continuing to push civil rights and domestic aid measures in the early '80s, Kennedy formed a powerful alliance with House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts against President Ronald Reagan’s agenda. He also branched into foreign policy, joining the Senate Armed Services Committee and adding to a record that had begun in the 1960s.

Kennedy fought Reagan on the Star Wars program and had a leading role in opposing the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Anthony Kennedy. He also won the chairmanship of the Senate Labor and Human Relations Committee and used it to push domestic priorities such as minimum wage increases, early education and more rights for the disabled. He endorsed the presidential bids of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 but did not attempt another one himself. Instead, he won Senate reelection throughout the decade with 61 percent in 1982 and 65 percent in 1988.

On March 29, 1991, Kennedy went drinking with his son Patrick and nephew William while at the family’s house in Palm Beach during Congress’s Easter recess. The William Kennedy Smith rape trial followed, bringing further fuel to criticism of Kennedy’s alcoholism and wanton ways.

The trial, broadcast on national cable TV and ending in Smith’s acquittal, exposed seedy details about Kennedy’s behavior. As in the past, Kennedy’s private conduct was laid bare just as he notched high-profile public achievements. While the Palm Beach legal system probed the rape case, for example, Kennedy helped avert a national railroad strike, pushed for a national healthcare system and took a leading role in expanding women’s rights.

Kennedy lost the battle to keep Clarence Thomas, nominated by President George H.W. Bush, off the Supreme Court, but continued racking up legislative wins throughout the 1990s. He helped expand the Head Start program in 1992, revised the federal student loan system in 1993 and helped pass the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1994. In 1996 he teamed up with Republican Nancy Kassenbaum of Kansas to open healthcare access to 25 million Americans by expanding eligibility rules.

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His private life took several notable turns during the decade. In 1991 he began dating Victoria Reggie, then a 38-year-old divorcee and mother who had long known the Kennedy family. He married her in 1992. He also survived the second-closest reelection challenge of his career in 1994, securing 58 percent of the vote against a then-unknown Republican named Mitt Romney.

Kennedy also gave an Oct. 26, 1991, speech at the Kennedy School of Government in Boston in which he apologized publicly for “my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life” and pledged redemption.

“Unlike my brothers, I have been given length of years and time,” Kennedy said. “As I approach my 60th birthday I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a third of a century.”

But the decade ended again in a Kennedy tragedy for which the senator would be the public face — nephew John Kennedy Jr.’s death in a July 1999 plane crash. Kennedy was photographed helping search for the body, and it was he who eulogized JFK Jr. at the funeral in New York City.

“We dared to think that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair,” Kennedy said of his nephew. “But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.”

In 2000, Kennedy was reelected to the Senate with 73 percent of the vote and then led negotiations that produced the No Child Left Behind Act, one of President George W.Bush’s first achievements.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Kennedy pushed for mental health aid to victims of the disaster and later introduced bioterrorism preparedness legislation. Still a member of the Armed Services Committee, he supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan but broke with Bush to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

His opposition to Bush’s stewardship of the Iraq conflict and the various branches of the U.S. war against Islamist terrorists became increasingly vehement as Bush’s tenure in office wore on. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, also met with considerable opposition from Kennedy.

Kennedy supported his Bay State colleague, Sen. John Kerry, for president in 2004, and early in 2008 endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), privately telling Senate colleagues that Obama’s campaign rallies reminded him of his brother Robert’s in 1968.

Reelected in 2006 with 69 percent of the vote, Kennedy quickly assumed the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee upon the Democratic capture of Congress. He gave up his long-held seat on the Judiciary Committee in 2008 to focus on health reform, but his battle with brain cancer also forced him to give up the public leadership on the bill to close friend Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

In July, the HELP Committee passed Kennedy’s bill. Dodd said Kennedy called him on the morning of the vote, “bellowing with joy.”

Kennedy’s 46 years of Senate service is exceeded only by the 50 years racked up by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).