A Conservative Reflection on Ted Kennedy

Political figures are said to be remembered in one line. George Washington was the father of his country. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot. Ted Kennedy let a woman die at Chappaquiddick and tried to cover it up.  If obituaries rightly remember the Massachusetts solon as America’s third longest serving senator, they do history a disservice by downplaying why he served so long in the Senate and not a day in the White House.

“It was widely assumed that after Jack’s two terms, Bobby and Ted would follow him into the Oval Office,” Ed Klein writes in his new biography of Ted Kennedy.  “Together, the three brothers would rule for nearly a quarter of a century: Jack 1961-1969; Bobby 1969-1977; and Ted, 1977-1985.” If true believers in Camelot mythology thought the youngest Kennedy destined for the presidency, Ted Kennedy’s history showed him destined to be Ted Kennedy.

Named after his father’s chauffer and, as one biographer uncharitably called him, “whoremaster,” Edward Moore Kennedy never had a chance to be anyone but Edward Moore Kennedy. Joe Kennedy’s ambition to be president, jeopardized by his burning affair with starlet Gloria Swanson, moved the family patriarch to offer more money, trips, and servants to his alienated wife in return for a ninth child that would keep the scandal sheets off his back. As biographer Joe McGinniss explained, Ted Kennedy’s “very existence was the result of an act of political calculation on his father’s part.”

Kennedy’s childhood took him, as the American ambassador’s son, to the Court of St. James where met the Queen of England, and, as a scion of one of America’s most famous Catholic families, to the Vatican, where he took first communion from Pope Pius XII.  Mostly though, his childhood took him away from his parents — whose jet-setting lifestyles left little time for actual parenting. At one boarding school outside of Boston, a classmate remembered that Rose and Joe Kennedy never visited their youngest son at school. Prior to high school, Kennedy attended ten different schools.

“He was my baby,” mother Rose remembered, “and I tried to keep him my baby.” When he was a man, this showed.  He cheated his way out of Harvard.  He led police on drunken high-speed chases while at law school in Charlottesville, Va.  He bedded the most available women.  When he finally settled down with Joan Bennett, his virgin bride surmised that he did so mainly because she refused to give him what so many of his girlfriends had  “The only reason he wanted to marry me,” Joan reflected, “was because he couldn’t get me any other way.”  The tone of the marriage was set when, upon watching the commemorative film of her wedding, Joan heard John Kennedy — momentarily unaware that he was miked up for the wedding motion picture — tell his youngest brother that being married didn’t mean he had to stop sleeping with other women.  After a lifetime observing the brazen adultery of his father, and hearing stories of his grandfather’s liaisons derailing his reelection as mayor of Boston, the advice probably seemed redundant.   

The election of such a man to the United States Senate in 1962 struck many, particularly the liberals who would grow to lionize Ted Kennedy, as a bad joke.  Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr dubbed the youngest Kennedy son’s bid for office “an affront to political decency.”  Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory said the trick in discussing the neophyte’s senate run was “to keep an absolutely straight face.”  Prof. Mark De Wolfe Howe of Harvard Law School, a sometime advisor to John F. Kennedy, found the youngest Kennedy’s candidacy “preposterous and insulting.” But the pedigree of the 30-year-old kid brother of the President bested that of Edward McCormack, the nephew of the Speaker of the House, in the Democratic primary.  And then in the general election, the pedigree defeated George Cabot Lodge’s, whose father, great-grandfather, and great-great-great-great-grandfather had sat in that Senate seat, and that of Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes’s grandson, H. Stuart Hughes, who ran as an independent “peace” candidate.  All of this left an exasperated New York Times to declare, “The victory for Edward Kennedy is demeaning to the dignity of the Senate and the democratic process.”

Despite his intellectual and character deficiencies, Ted was the family’s natural politician.  His glad-handing and gregarious nature showed him as a Fitzgerald and not a Kennedy.  It was from his grandfather, the lovable rogue John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a one-term mayor of Boston who got kicked out of Congress after vote fraud got him into Congress, that Ted Kennedy inherited the political gene.  Whereas Jack was aloof and Bobby was vindictive, Ted was a back-slapping, if not man-of-the-people, than at least man-comfortable-among-the-people.  One wouldn’t dream of seeing the so-strident Bobby, or the debonair Jack, dressed as Barney the Dinosaur or in drag as Iran-Contra sex symbol Fawn Hall — as Ted hilariously did, strangely, at his annual Christmas parties.  

The frivolity certainly masked pain.  His was a life of tragedy.  Sister Rosemary lobotomized. Brother Joe killed in a daring mission over enemy lines.  Sister Kathleen killed in a plane crash. Brothers Jack and Bobby assassinated.  Later, his wife Joan endured a stillborn birth and miscarriage.  In 1964, the senator escaped death when his plane, en route to a Democratic meeting in Springfield, Mass., went down in an apple orchard.  His son Teddy, at 12, had a leg amputated at the knee in 1973. Ted Kennedy lived to see so many of his siblings’ offspring, whom he had served as a surrogate father, destroy their own lives through drugs, bad sexual choices, and general recklessness . Apart from the obvious pulls of ethnicity and religion, these tragedies, vicariously experienced by his constituents, emotionally bound the Massachusetts electorate to their elected.   

But as a shadow President for liberal America, Kennedy’s constituency extended well beyond Massachusetts.  Bussing, gun control, abortion, gay rights, and outlawing capital punishment were among the hot-button issues Kennedy championed that so endeared him to his party’s left wing.  It is perhaps a metaphor for modern liberalism’s partiality toward purity in defeat over compromise in victory that its leading exponent, in his four-decade fight for socialized medicine, always fought the good fight but never secured the legislative triumph.  Perhaps more so than the causes he advocated, the enemies he attracted made him a hero to American progressives.  “After all is said and done,” the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater quipped in 1990, “Ted Kennedy is still the man in American politics Republicans love to hate.”  

They hated him in large part because in the wee hours of July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Kopechne to her death and, rather than report the accident to the police, spent the next ten hours or so sobering up, attempting to cajole his drinking buddies to vouch for his innocence in the matter, and calling his lawyer, a German girlfriend, and political cronies.  The indifference was particularly galling to many involved in the case.  “She didn’t drown,” the diver who retrieved Kophechne’s body from Kennedy’s Oldsmobile Delmont 88, steadfastly held.  “She died of suffocation in her own air void.  It took her at least three or four hours to die.  I could have had her out of that car in 25 minutes after I got the call.  But he didn’t call.”  As with Watergate, it was more the cover-up than the crime that infuriated observers.  

Though Chappaquiddick unleashed no political repercussions upon Kennedy in Massachusetts, it undermined his moral authority throughout his career.  His lone run for the presidency in 1980 was stymied in part by President Jimmy Carter’s clever ads obliquely, but never directly, referring to Chappaquiddick.  When one voter said of Kennedy in a Carter commercial, “I don’t think he could deal with a crisis,” every viewer knew exactly what he meant.  When Kennedy lectured South Africans on apartheid in the 1980s, a leading daily’s headline read:  “He’s Teaching Us Morals?” During the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas he-said/she said and the brouhaha over John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of Defense, Ted Kennedy was the invisible man.  

He was the consummate politician, whose admirers saw principle wherever expedience glared.  When the Vietnam War was popular among his constituents, he was “prepared to see a long and difficult struggle.”  When the war’s popularity waned, he became a leading dove.  When abortion struck his Catholic base as anathema in the early 1970s, Ted Kennedy spoke out forcefully against it.  “[O]nce life has begun,” he wrote in 1971, “no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire.” When the winds shifted within the Democratic Party, Kennedy became the leading voice in the Senate on behalf of abortion on demand.  In 2005, Kennedy wrote in the Boston Globe, “The President, the Vice President, the secretary of State, and the attorney general tell us that the President can order domestic spying inside this country — without judicial oversight — under his power as commander in chief. Really?  Where do they find that in the Constitution?”  Where did John Kennedy, or his attorney general, Bobby Kennedy, find that power in the Constitution.  Warrantless wiretapping, which Ted Kennedy carped about during the George W. Bush Administration, enjoyed his vocal support during his brother’s administration.  Just last week a letter released over Kennedy’s signature asked the Massachusetts General Court to repeal a law, which Kennedy pushed just a few years earlier when Republican Mitt Romney was governor, which stripped the executive of the power to fill vacancies and instead allow special elections to do so.  The Bay State’s governor, tellingly, is now a Democrat.  

His brother Jack escalated the Vietnam War and is remembered as a dove who never, ever would have involved America in Vietnam had he lived.  His brother Bobby, who wiretapped the Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr.’s phones and bugged his hotel rooms, is perversely remembered as a civil-rights martyr — with his picture hanging alongside King’s in the homes of many black Americans.  And Ted Kennedy, who caddishly left a woman to die as he plotted ways to rescue his political career, found himself canonized as a saint of the women’s movement.  Ted’s life, like the lives of his two older brothers, vindicates the advice father Joe once offered him:  “You must remember, it’s not what you are that counts but only what people think you are.”