For historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy marks more than the passing of an era. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer has also been a long-time Kennedy friend.
Goodwin spoke to us live from the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester on Friday morning, where she was helping keep vigil over the flag-draped casket of the late senator.
Bob Oakes: I’m wondering if you might share with us what Ted Kennedy has meant to you in your life — both professionally and personally.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, I’ve known him for probably over 35 years — my husband, of course, worked in the White House with President Kennedy; was with Bobby when he died; and then was very close to Teddy Kennedy, who was at our wedding. We’ve spent vacations with him.
You know, I think the extraordinary thing about him when you think of that long life is the way it’s really hit individual people in their daily goings-about.
There’s a real personal bond that you can feel, even out here today at the Kennedy Library. You know, so many of those people who also loved Jack and Bobby, but probably never saw him, only saw either one of them through the power of television.
A lot of these people here today have actually seen Teddy, they’ve had some dealings with him, or the legislation that he sponsored has affected them — giving them children’s health insurance; helping to get the right to vote; letting them take family and medical leave when something happened in the family; or people who are gay knowing that he helped with them; disabilities, helping with those rights.
In a certain sense, the senator, it showed, could have more power in some ways, than presidents in making different changes in people’s daily lives, and you feel that in the emotion of these people today.
Ted Kennedy, who achieved so much as a senator — authoring over 2,500 bills in the Senate, passing hundreds of them — had some personal failings, some rough years. I’m wondering, as a biographer, how would you characterize his life and legacy, or how do you think his life and legacy will be characterized?
You know, I keep coming back to the great quote by Ernest Hemingway, where he said, “Everyone is broken by life, afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
I mean there’s no question Teddy Kennedy was broken by life, both in terms of the deaths in his family, but also in terms of problems of his own making. And I think, however, if you look at the long life now — and it was so encouraging to hear for him that he felt a sense of peace with himself in these last months, knowing he was going to die, feeling that he’d had a long and productive life — there must have been moments in that life when it wasn’t clear that it was going to end up in such a positive balance.
I guess that’s what you ask of things. You know, there are certainly things he would have regretted, things that all of us would have regretted for him. But in the long run, the balance is so much on the positive side and to be able to go to your death feeling that way, it’s probably a very comforting feeling for him and his family.
We’ve been hearing a lot of people, both commentators and people in line or just lining the route where the motorcade passed on Thursday, speak of the end of an era — that Ted Kennedy’s death signals a farewell to Camelot. Do you think that’s so?
Well, I do think it’s the end of the story that really captivated so many people’s minds and hearts, starting with Jack Kennedy and Jackie, the death of Jack; Bobby taking over, the death of Bobby; the whole ’60s; and then Teddy becoming the mantle for the Kennedy family.
That original family, that story is drawing to a close. Surely there are enough young people in the next generation and the generation after that who are going to be involved in public life in one way or another, and one or more of them may rise to, perhaps, public office, Senates, maybe even some day a presidency.
It’s still going to be their own story, though. It’s a different story from the original Kennedy story.
Kennedy’s son, Patrick, the Rhode Island congressman, is the only Kennedy now holding public office. Many of the younger Kennedys are, as you observed, very active in social causes. What’s the family’s path from this point?
Well, you know, it’s interesting what you say, because I remember some years ago seeing a cartoon where they said when you got to call the role call in the Congress and you got to the Ks, they’d be just saying, “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy.”
And it didn’t happen that way. As we were just saying, a lot of those younger generation people went into serve in other ways — as environmental lawyers, as documentary filmmakers, in philanthropy, in non-profit organizations.
But my guess is the family DNA has been so much in public life, they’ve been around elections — I mean Joe Kennedy here in Massachusetts has the charisma, has the talent, has the possibilities, I think, of becoming one of the contenders, perhaps, for the Senate up here. There is Patrick, as you say, who’s already in the Congress. There’s Chris out in Illinois.
They will be heard from. It still will be, however, their own story, as opposed to this story that we’ve all been a part of, which I think is now having its final chapter.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you very much, we appreciate your time.
I’m very glad to be with you. You take care.