Support the news

A Prince Of Camelot Who Got The People's Work Done02:59
Download

Play
This article is more than 10 years old.

He was born on third base, and, thanks to his older brother, he was halfway home when, at the age of 30, Ted Kennedy became eligible to fill Jack's Senate seat in 1962. Awaiting that day, a family loyalist had kept the seat warm after Jack got elected president. The Kennedy magic was already working for him.

He was tall, fit and exuded the image of vigor that was newly stamped on the White House. But he had to run for the office first. That's when I first remember him.

His opponent in the primary was Eddie McCormack, the state attorney general, a very decent man from another political tribe, whose chieftain was John McCormack, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Eddie McCormack had worked hard and thought he deserved the job. In their debate, he uttered the only line that endured. He said "If your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a farce."

McCormack was right. Of course Ted wasn't qualified. But it didn't matter. He was the president's brother.

And the walls of every house I walk into seemed to have three portraits side by side — of Jesus, Jack and John 23rd. Teddy beat Eddy McCormack in a landslide. Life is unfair. I remember, JFK said that.

In the shadow of his brothers, Ted had an easy and not particularly distinguished ride. But then, in the shortened youth that was his and ours, Jack was murdered, Ted nearly died in a plane crash that killed two, and Bobby was shot to death, as well. Life is unfair.

As people mourned for Bobby and what might have been, Ted became the last of the line and the one in whom the loyalists of the New Frontier invested their dreams.

He wasn't Bobby and he wasn't Jack. The burden of expectations was enormous, and Ted never came as close to the White House as Bobby had. But Ted had assets his brothers lacked.

He had the affability of an Irish cop, his father once observed. And though he didn't lack intelligence and charisma, he had diligence and determination that along with affability suited him for success as legislator.

Jack and Bobby didn't like the details or the work of the Senate. But Ted devoured them. And he conquered the place molehill by molehill. He showed respect for the institution and for bipartisanship. And across the aisle they loved him, even as Republicans used him as a foil for fundraising.

And a foil he became, in the Reagan and Bush years, for his unapologetic belief in the power of government to make people's lives better.

Then there was his personal life, early on, which had careened from substance to squalor, with twin scandals abbreviated to Palm Beach and Chappaquiddick, where a young woman died when he drove off a bridge and then left the scene of an accident. Amidst the war in Vietnam and the first astronaut walking on the moon, Chappaquiddick commanded the country's attention and ultimately shut off Kennedy's chance of becoming president.

I began covering him regularly in the 1980s. By then, the dream of the White House had ended, in a brilliant speech but an odd campaign against Jimmy Carter that found no traction or purpose. But with that defeat, it was as if Ted Kennedy had been liberated from the burden of expectations and carrying the torch for Camelot. He had turned to his Senate career with full and complete attention.

He showed enormous empathy for common people. Indeed, his first campaign manager traces the start of Kennedy's commitment to national health care to his curiosity about how regular people coped with the costs of medical care after catastrophic accidents, such as the plane crash that broke his back.

Throughout his career, Kennedy took an extraordinary interest in the lives and problems of his constituents. He couldn't have done that without recruiting and training terrific staffers. But he wouldn't have done that without a depth of compassion often displayed in private and without seeking attention.

I remember the mothers and fathers of children who'd been sent as reservists and national guardsmen to Iraq without proper body armor. He'd made his stand against the war, but he was one of the first in Congress to push the Pentagon to protect its soldiers and to harden Humvees and other trucks that were being pierced by roadside bombs.

A couple years ago, I got a call from some angry friends whose daughter had just returned from Iraq to her military base in Indiana. In order to save money, the Army told her and fellow reservists they had to take an 18-hour bus trip home to Massachusetts instead of the customary plane ride. After more than a year of hardships in Iraq, soldiers and parents were outraged. They called Kennedy's office that Friday, an impossible time to get anything done in Washington.

Yet the senator and his staff took charge. Over the weekend, he pressed the Pentagon and made personal phone calls thanking the parents for calling him.

The Pentagon came up with a plane. When the soldiers returned home to Devens a couple days later, Kennedy was there to greet them. In the middle of a crowd, shaking hands, hugged by mothers, laughing heartily, and cheered like the hero he was, Ted Kennedy was a giant. He was his own man. He was sui generis.

This program aired on August 26, 2009.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news