Sean Wilentz: Triumph And Tragedy ... The Seesaw Life Of Edward M. Kennedy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton) and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (Harper).]

Over the past 40 years, Edward Moore Kennedy was the grand statesman of the Democratic liberalism that emerged out of the 1960s. He was a loyalist to his principles even when those principles fell completely out of fashion. He overcame personal flaws and searing travails to become a masterful legislator, congressional infighter, and builder of unlikely coalitions. Ironically, he achieved all of this only after he had surmounted the political entitlement that made his career possible in the first place. In an even deeper irony, of the three famous and powerful Kennedy brothers, it was youngest brother, Teddy the latecomer, who arguably had the greatest impact on American politics and government. These travails and these ironies gave Kennedy's life dimensions of American triumph as well as of prideful, classical tragedy.

When Kennedy first ran for the Senate in 1962, at the age of thirty, for the seat that JFK vacated when he was elected president, the rap against him was that if his name were Edward Moore his candidacy would be a political joke. It was true, of course: Although he was hardly a reluctant candidate, he was very much the dutiful, slightly wayward, much younger brother in what some viewed warily as a family that was busily acquiring a new firm, otherwise known as the federal government of the United States. As the assistant district attorney for Suffolk County three years out of law school, Kennedy's surname was really all he had going for him, and everybody knew as much--but that name, and the presumptions about the politics and connections that went with it, were magic in Massachusetts. Kennedy turned out to be an effective campaigner on the stump, and his supporters even took some knowing delight in upbraiding his high-minded critics. At one tense meeting in Cambridge, the eminent law professor Mark DeWolfe Howe waxed apoplectic about the young Kennedy's manifest lack of qualifications. "Relax, Mark," replied Kennedy supporter Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. "Ted's a candidate for the United States Senate, not the faculty of Harvard Law School." Kennedy won his primary and handily defeated his Republican opponent, the scion of another Massachusetts political dynasty, George Cabot Lodge II. Never again, through eight re-election campaigns, would Kennedy fail to win less than 55 percent of the vote.

Amid catastrophe and near-catastrophe, Kennedy continually summoned the will to transcend himself, even as he struggled with self-doubt about living up to his brothers' examples. He had been in the Senate barely a year when the world collapsed in Dallas; and then the world kept on collapsing for the rest of the 1960s, beginning with his own near death (and permanent injury) in a plane crash only seven months after President Kennedy's assassination. Surviving the crash, though, awakened a new sense of purpose and seriousness in the young senator. He consulted with members of JFK's brain trust about how he might most usefully spend his long convalescence in reading and writing projects (much as his brother had during his own medical ordeals). He began taking an active interest in the inadequacies of the nation's health care system, an issue he would make one of his own. But another pattern also developed: As Kennedy matured into a leading force on Capitol Hill, he repeatedly drifted and dashed against the rocks.

For many years, he did not understand how the incident at Chappaquiddick in July 1969 foreclosed the possibility that he would ever succeed JFK to the presidency or fulfill the promise of RFK's presidential campaign in 1968. In part, this was because he would never be able to explain his actions and inactions of that night adequately (except, perhaps, to the forgiving voters of Massachusetts). But the events also marked the beginning of what would become a convergence of celebrity scandal mongering and cynical prurience that forever changed the rules of American political journalism--and from which Kennedy, with his personal demons, would not escape for decades.

The disgrace of Chappaquiddick helped cost Kennedy his position as Senate Majority Whip in 1971; and though he seriously toyed with the idea, he also turned aside his admirers' stubborn hopes that he would challenge President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. Yet Kennedy picked himself up once again, and by concentrating on his Senate committee work and focusing on some key issues, he accomplished a great deal in the '70s. As chair of the Senate subcommittee on health care, he helped lead the fight for what became the National Cancer Act in 1971, and pushed hard, albeit fruitlessly, for more ambitious health care reform. He also became a leading voice for campaign finance reform, for the overdue deregulation of the trucking and airlines industries, for negotiating a settlement to the sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland, and for aiding escapees from political and military turmoil around the globe.

Kennedy's decision to unseat the incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter in 1980 was the worst political error he ever made. He was incensed at what he considered Carter's betrayal: specifically, of health care reform, and, more generally, of liberal principles. The effort was unmistakably a Kennedy restoration campaign, of a kind that some Democrats had been awaiting for more than a decade. Yet at first, Kennedy sounded strangely ineffectual, unable, when caught off-guard by a television interviewer, to articulate a coherent rationale for his candidacy. He also carried the weight of a collapsing marriage, as well as of the public's lingering outrage about Chappaquiddick. After taking his campaign all the way to the Democratic convention, Kennedy made a strong impression with a concession speech that stirred liberal idealists--but he then spoiled the political moment by snubbing Carter. The public slight widened a split in the party that contributed both to Ronald Reagan's victory in November, and to the Democrats' loss of the majority in the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter of a century...
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