Ted Kennedy was a spoiled rich kid whose mischief ended up killing a girl one night, and only his family’s wealth and connections saved him from prison.
That’s one way to tell the story, and as far as it goes, it’s tragically accurate. That’s also the one-sentence version of a complex life that many of his bitter enemies preferred to tell and would still prefer today, at Kennedy’s passing at the age of 77.
But Kennedy, to his credit, refused to let that sentence or that night confine him, and the country is a better place as a result.
In a strange way, the accident on Chappaquiddick may even have magnified Kennedy’s place in the history books. If it prevented him from becoming president, the supposed pinnacle of political achievement, well, presidents come and go. Even while in office, their impact on the country’s course is often exaggerated, and once their term ends, their power ends and they wander off into a long anti-climax.
Chappaquiddick helped ensure that Kennedy’s life played out in the Senate instead, where over the decades he would accumulate power, build relationships and craft legislation that affected millions of his fellow Americans. Today, Barack Obama is vacationing as president on Martha’s Vineyard — the site of Chappaquiddick — in part because at a critical point in the ‘08 campaign, the Kennedy stamp of approval was placed upon him. Just a few days ago, John McCain mused publicly that the current health-care debate would be playing out very differently had Kennedy been around to guide the behind-the-scenes politics.
Kennedy did make one major grab for the presidency, and it was not his finest moment. His behavior in the 1980 presidential primaries, when he tried and failed to unseat Jimmy Carter as the Democratic nominee, was petty and vindictive. But it also reflected who he was: Beneath the glamor and the glitz, the Kennedys played to win, and politics ain’t for the faint-hearted. They may have played games of touch football on the lawn at Hyannisport, but when it came time for politics, they strapped on the helmets and pads and they would hit you hard. The aristocratic, New England veneer could not always disguise the striving of a hard-nosed immigrant clan.
My grandmother, an Irish Catholic herself, for years kept a shrine of sorts on the fireplace mantle for the sainted John Kennedy. And when I was a kid, my dad was stationed for several years at an Air Force base on Cape Cod, not far from the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. Whenever a dark-windowed limousine was spotted traveling on Route 3, the only highway from Boston onto the Cape, someone would inevitably nod and say, “Must be a Kennedy.” Limousines were much more rare back then, and the only people anyone could conceive of traveling that way were the local aristocracy, the Kennedys.
Years later, early in my journalism travels when I was working at a small newspaper in western Massachusetts, I ended up meeting Kennedy. What I remember most was not the man but the impact he had on other people. It was my first up-close look at the power of charisma. People came from all over the plant and all over town — secretaries, drivers, ad salesmen, even the gruff, cynical printers — they lined the walls of the newsroom in hopes of seeing a Kennedy, and they became giddy in his presence. That taught me something you can’t find in a poli sci textbook.
The most convincing testament to Kennedy’s aura, however, comes from his fellow senators. They’re an egotistical bunch, 100 would-be presidents in waiting, and they’re not easily impressed with each other. But over the past couple of decades, even Kennedy’s most conservative colleagues would speak of him with respect, even reverence. Given enough time, he had grown into himself, and he left a legacy that far outweighs those of the brothers in whose shadow he struggled.