Ted Kennedy: Last Man Standing

Claire Scobie
marie claire

On a bitterly cold November day in 1963, proceedings in the US Senate are uncharacteristically quiet. Sitting at a mahogany desk overlooking the hushed chamber, a handsome, broad-shouldered man with swept-back, nut-brown hair is signing a stack of papers. Though still considered junior, the young senator cuts a commanding figure on Washington's Capitol Hill. Suddenly, as he nods to a colleague addressing the Senate, he hears a commotion outside. An aide bursts in. Such a boisterous intrusion is unheard of, but it's clear from the assistant's panicked face something horrific has happened. "Your brother, the president," he whispers to the senator. "He's been shot."

Overwhelmed with a familiar feeling of dread, Edward Kennedy races from the chamber. His only thought is to speak to his brother Robert. Frantically, he tries the phone. The line is dead. He tries another. Finally, he gets through and his worst fears are confirmed. His older brother, President John F. Kennedy, 46, has been cut down in his prime, felled by the bullets of a lone gunman.

Of all the Kennedy brothers, Edward, or Ted, is closest to his parents. And it falls to him to break the news to his frail father; a once feared patriarch, now confined to a wheelchair at the family home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Ted goes down on his knees and buries his face in his 75-year-old father's papery hands. "There's been a bad accident," he says. "The President died." Tears stream down the cheeks of both men.

As hysteria gripped the US – JFK's presidency had been dubbed the American Camelot – Ted concealed his grief so he could stay strong for the family. But having spent his youth in the shadow of his older brothers, living up to the myth was always going to be tough. Despite being born into extraordinary privilege, Ted's charmed life seemed to be stalked by death: two of his brothers died at the end of a gun, another in an aircraft explosion, and his own presidential ambitions were doomed after a car he was driving careened off a bridge and left a young woman dead. By the time he'd reached middle age, Ted's good looks had become ravaged by excess: his drinking was infamous; his womanising legendary; his private life a sordid mess.
Yet Ted defied his demons and rose to become a political icon: the "Lion of the Senate", and one of America's most enduring politicians. As heartbreak coursed through his family, Ted assumed a patriarchal role, and worked hard to further the Democratic Party's ideals, latterly backing Senator Barack Obama to become the US's first black president.

Born on February 22, 1932, Edward Moore Kennedy was the adored youngest of nine children. Nicknamed "Biscuits and Muffins" by sister Jean, his chubby face and quick humour earned him the role of cheerful family clown. His Irish-American, Catholic parents, Joseph (Joe) and Rose, hailed from influential Democratic Party families in Boston. Joe, a banker, served as chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and instilled his sons with the belief that the Kennedys' rightful home was the White House. Rose did her part, too, stating: "My babies were rocked to political lullabies."

By the age of seven, Ted was living in a 36-room mansion in London, where his father was posted as US ambassador to Britain. But "World War II would start what would later be called 'The Kennedy Curse'", wrote Peter Canellos in Last Lion: The Fall And Rise Of Ted Kennedy (Simon & Schuster, $45). In 1940, Ted's sister Rosemary underwent a lobotomy to treat mood swings and never recovered. Three years later, his eldest brother, Joe Jr, died when explosives aboard his bomb-laden plane detonated prematurely over southern England during a risky mission against the Nazis. Sister Kathleen also died in a plane crash in the south of France in 1948.

The grief-stricken Kennedys returned from Britain to their family home at Hyannis Port. Rose withdrew into her books, while Joe Sr found release through business, travel and extramarital affairs. Ted found escape through sailing, one of his enduring passions.

Ted's parents continually compared him unfavourably to his older brothers, Joe, John and Robert. A mediocre student with an impulsive arrogance, Ted was expelled from Harvard for cheating in a Spanish exam in 1951. After enlisting in the army (he never saw action in the ongoing Korean War), Ted was readmitted to Harvard in 1953. He then enrolled in a law degree at the University of Virginia in 1956. While at Virginia, he was charged with reckless driving. It was during this time that he met Virginia Joan Bennett, a pretty blonde who said he was "tall and gorgeous". Ted was smitten, too, and, in 1958, they married. Joan, as she was known, bore him three children: Kara Anne, Edward Jr and Patrick. Yet within months, "he was philandering", recalled family friend Dick Tuck. "He was always chasing, looking for the conquest."

By 1962, the Kennedys – by sheer weight of numbers and the influential positions they held – were America's most powerful political family, exceeding even Joe Sr's expectations. John was president; Robert was US Attorney General and Ted a senator. But none of them could have known their lives – and history – were about to be up-ended.

On November 22, 1963, while the public watched in horror, John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as the presidential motorcade cruised through Dallas, Texas. The Kennedy curse had struck again. The following spring when the president had promised to visit Ireland, the family homeland, Ted went in his place. On May 29, 1964, he told the adoring Irish crowd, "Today is a day of joy and sadness...because today is the President's birthday. My brother will not be able to come back and enjoy any more spring days."

A month later, Ted nearly died in a plane crash that claimed the lives of one of his closest friends as well as the pilot. Ted had been insistent, despite bad weather in Washington, that they take off in a small plane to go to the Massachusetts Democratic convention in West Springfield. On final approach, in thick fog, the plane crashed into an apple orchard and both wings sheared off. Two other passengers, Senator Birch Bayh and his wife, Marvella, escaped. Amid the growing stench of petrol fumes, Senator Bayh said, "I've got to make another try for Ted." He hauled the senator out of the wreckage like a sack of grain. Ted had broken his back and would suffer chronic pain for the rest of his life. But rather than wallow, he used an extended period in hospital as the source for his life-long passion: to provide every American with universal health care.

Meanwhile, Robert (Bobby) moved to fill the shoes of his murdered brother by launching his own presidential campaign. Bobby had always been the family lynchpin and Ted adored him. But on June 5, 1968, in a cruel echo of history, Bobby was shot and fatally wounded by Palestinian radical Sirhan Sirhan as Bobby celebrated victory in the Democratic Party's California primary. When it was clear Bobby's life was beyond saving, Ted crumbled. "I have never, ever [seen] a face more in grief. It was beyond grief and agony," recalled Frank Mankiewicz, one of Bobby's aides.

At the age of 36, Ted suddenly found himself the last Kennedy brother standing. The combined hopes, ambitions and dreams of his family now fell on his relatively inexperienced shoulders. "There was this crushing drive and desire to fulfil their agendas," said friend John Culver. "It was extraordinary that he was able to just put one foot in front of the other." Ted rose to the occasion, delivering the eloquent eulogy at Bobby's funeral at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

In private, Ted sunk to a place of utter darkness. Tellingly, the first recorded incidents of his public drunkenness came in the aftermath of Bobby's assassination. As he took on the gargantuan role of surrogate father for his two brothers' 13 children, he would also later have to cope with his son Edward Jr's bone cancer, which cost the boy a leg. The tide of grief also swamped his marriage. Joan, unable to cope with her husband's affairs, also took to the bottle.

But after months of sailing and keeping a low profile, Ted threw himself back into the lion's den. Less than a year after Bobby's death, he "seemed locked in a sure, unstoppable ascent to the White House", wrote Canellos. Then came Chappaquiddick. This one word, and all that it encompassed, signalled an end to Ted's dream of leading his nation.

It was a balmy summer evening when the senator arrived at the small island of Martha's Vineyard on July 18, 1969. He was there for a party thanking a group of women who had worked on Bobby's presidential campaign the previous year. Around midnight, Ted left the party with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Within minutes, he crashed his car off a narrow bridge into a tidal channel on nearby Chappaquiddick Island. "There was complete blackness," Ted recalled later. "Water seemed to rush in from every point." The car rapidly sank. Ted struggled free, but Kopechne drowned.

Ted later said that he'd made several attempts to save Kopechne, but it would be 10 hours before he contacted the police. Ted described his actions as "inexcusable" in his memoir, True Compass (Little, Brown, $50). He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month suspended sentence.

A 1970 inquest was more damning. Judge James A. Boyle concluded that Kennedy had not told the whole truth and that "negligent driving appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne". Ted denied there had been any intentional wrongdoing or that he was under the influence of alcohol.

But he did have a drinking problem. By the early '80s, recently divorced from Joan, Ted's weight fluctuated wildly. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks blotchy. "The nose that was once straight and narrow is now swollen and bulbous," wrote Michael Kelly in his candid 1990 GQ profile, which portrayed Ted as "an aging Irish boyo clutching a bottle and diddling a blonde". Kelly also chronicled "Terrible Teddy's sexual recklessness" at Washington's famous La Brasserie: the night he allegedly manhandled "a pretty young waitress", slamming her on the table, scattering glasses and cutlery; and the luncheon where Ted was found "pants down" on the floor "screwing" his blonde date. The senator's private life continued to dominate headlines after a 1991 incident in Palm Beach, Florida, when he, son Patrick and nephew William Kennedy Smith went on a bender. That night, a woman accused Kennedy Smith of rape. While not directly implicated, Ted was portrayed by Time magazine as a "Palm Beach boozer, lout and tabloid grotesque". At the televised rape trial, Kennedy Smith was acquitted, and Ted's tattered reputation somewhat restored.

Despite his acknowledged personal failings – Ted once confessed, "I have fallen short in my life, but my faith has always brought me home" – he clung to his political ambitions. After Ted failed in his 1980 presidential bid against President Jimmy Carter, he gave the most famous speech of his career, which encapsulated the essence of US liberalism. "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

As the White House slipped from his grasp, it liberated Ted to become his own man. By the '90s, he was in "a different chapter" of his life, and had found love with Victoria Reggie, a divorced mother of two, whom he married in 1992; and he focused on what he did best: being the Lion of the Senate. Ted never did give up, in his words, "a stiff drink or two or three", but in his autumn years, he was faithful and lived a calmer life. Even the loss of nephew John F. Kennedy Jr – killed with his wife and sister-in-law when their plane crashed into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard in 1999 – couldn't rock him. It cemented Ted's role as family patriarch.

When he first entered the Senate, Barack Obama was only 15 months old. By 2006, Ted was selected by Time as one of "America's 10 Best Senators" for his "Titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country." More than 300 bills that Ted and his staff wrote were enacted into law. He was a champion of the poor, the dispossessed and the sick; he reformed immigration and battled for civil rights. He was also a uniting force between Democrats and Republicans, a man whose strict work ethic ensured that, however late he staggered to bed, he never failed to show up for a debate.

In January 2008, the elder statesman electrified the presidential race by endorsing Obama, the young senator from Illinois. Political pundits saw it as a symbolic passing of the torch. For Ted, it was "time again for a new generation of leadership". Obama, in return, gave him a commitment to make universal health care a top priority of his administration. But, sadly, Ted did not live to see his dream realised. Within months, he was facing his last personal battle: cancer of the brain. Despite surgery, he died, aged 77, on August 25, 2009. His body travelled the 110km journey from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, where more than 50,000 people paid their respects.

At the funeral mass at Boston's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica stood a line of America's most influential men: former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. President Obama gave the eulogy, calling Ted "the greatest legislator of our time". He was buried at Arlington Cemetery, next to his brothers. In an apt legacy, it was Kennedy who once noted, "We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make. I have lived a blessed time."