Last King of Camelot
He has just lost his seventh sibling, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and this summer marked the 40th anniversary of Chappaquiddick. As he battles brain cancer Sarah Caden looks back at Ted Kennedy’s long walk from Camelot
In July 1999, it fell to Ted Kennedy, once again, to explain tragedy to his extended family. That summer 10 years ago, this family, both blessed and cursed, was mourning John F Kennedy Jr, killed in a plane crash with his wife Carolyn and her sister, Lauren. “We dared to think,” said Ted at his nephew's memorial service, “in that Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb grey hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But, like his father, he had every gift but length of years.”
At the age of 67, Ted was the patriarch, the last living son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, the one to whom it had fallen, for decades, to pick up the pieces after a catastrophe. This was the man who, as a boy, had lost two siblings — Joseph Jr and Kathleen — to plane crashes before he turned 16 and had also seen his sister Rosemary undergo a lobotomy. This was the man forced to tell his stroke-enfeebled father that John F Kennedy had been assassinated. This was the man who, after Robert's assassination five years later, was left as mentor to the 13 children left fatherless by his brothers' deaths. And, along the way, there had been other tragedies in the next generation: drug abuse, alcoholism, serious illness. By July 1999, Ted Kennedy was unusually practised in coping with tragedy. But, on the flip side, he was also well practised in surviving.
For as much as Ted's words at that memorial commented on the loss of young men in their prime — JFK, Bobby, John Jr — they also commented on the fact that he, the youngest Kennedy of his generation, endured. And, perhaps unconsciously, pointed out the fact that in some ways it is more difficult to endure, to be the survivor, to have time on your side. Because in time we lose our youthful bloom and promise, we accumulate regrets, make mistakes and count their consequences. When we endure, we acquire a long list of charges against us, while the dead remain as they were, hopeful, untarnished and rarely criticised.
So it has been for Ted Kennedy, who in his 77 years has racked up more than a few mistakes on a balance sheet that also boasts his long-standing, well-regarded senatorial career, his ‘Lion of the Senate’ status. And during his current serious illness, the assessment of Ted's as a life well lived or one wasted has begun, though there is an uncertainty as to how he will be assessed.
Because while it is the case that with Ted Kennedy's passing will come the end of an era, that end will not have the tragic quality that has made heroes of his brothers. With Ted, there may, instead, be the sad sense of life having run its course, with no opportunity for making a myth of the man, but with a huge awareness that there are very few lives as extraordinary as that of the last of the Kennedy boys. And Ted must wonder, as he battles brain cancer, whether history will be as kind to him as it has been to his big brothers.
The family pet name for Edward Moore Kennedy says it all about what was once his role in the clan. There is little gravitas or dignity in Teddy, instead it's a pat-on-the-head sort of name, exactly that given to the baby. And Ted was the baby of the Kennedys, brought up all over the world thanks to his father's career, in London, New York, Massachusetts and Florida, going to good schools, given his First Holy Communion by the Pope, engaging in the rough and tumble of family life, picking up the same lessons in how to have a good time and how to treat a woman that his late brothers became infamous for. And Teddy was the one allowed to be the rogue, seven years younger than Robert and a full 15 years John's junior.
At Harvard, he was expelled for cheating in an exam, but later readmitted, and there was something of the naughty rich kid to Ted.
Ted Kennedy was just into his thirties when JFK was assassinated. Now a family in the public eye, their grief was America's grief, and their hope in Bobby was also shared by the nation. Having won Jack's senate seat two years after his brother's election as president, Ted was an asset to Robert in his bid for the White House, maybe less politically focused — at that stage — than were his brothers, but apparently more affable and easy with people. He and Robert grew close after the loss of Jack, and when Robert too was assassinated, in 1968, Ted was devastated and began a pattern of destructive behaviour that will forever stain his record.
Last month, it was 40 years since the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. It was the summer after Robert Kennedy's death and Ted, then married to former beauty queen Joan, was at a party for the girls who had worked on his brother's campaign. He left the party with 28-year-old Kopechne and, apparently, took a wrong turn and drove off the Dike Bridge into Poucha Pond. The car turned over in the water, Ted escaped and, when he got to land, made his way back to his hotel and made phone calls alerting family and others to what had happened. He had made several attempts to free Mary Jo from the car, Ted later said, and got to shore exhausted, but many asked later why he did not raise the alarm at the houses he passed en-route to his hotel and why, more seriously, it was not until the next morning the police were alerted. By that time, Mary Jo Kopechne was dead.
Ted Kennedy, one of a family that was at that stage more revered and pitied than mired in any of the scandal that has since arisen, attended the Kopechne (above) funeral. And, later, he was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident and nothing more serious. But Chappaquidick didn't go away, particularly not once Kennedy dared to run for president in 1980.
Kennedy's 1980 presidential bid was characterised by a certain arrogance. Unusually, Kennedy pitted himself against fellow Democrat and incumbent president Jimmy Carter that year and, for a time, seemed set to win over the party for their nomination. But things stacked up against Kennedy.
The aforementioned arrogance, which supporters see instead as plucky immigrant, one-time underdog spirit, faltered at times, with Kennedy seeming at one point unsure why he even wanted to be president and, when Chappaquiddick came up again and again, some support abandoned him. Though Kennedy always shot down accusations of wrong-doing, it was his Achilles heel. Ultimately, the party did not support his bid and though there were suggestions in later years that he would run again, it was apparently Ted's decision after 1980 that he would focus his energy on being a great senator. Thus, perhaps, he would avoid what he has called his greatest disadvantage, that of being compared to his deceased, near deified brothers.
During Ted's presidential run, rumours had spread that all was not well in his marriage, though he and Joan put up a good show of unity. There was, however, talk of drink issues on her part and infidelity on his, and, in 1981, it was announced they were to divorce. In subsequent decades, Joan was to take a sad path into a serious drink problem, with a history of arrests and unsuccessful stints in rehab culminating in her children being given legal guardianship of her. For Ted, the eighties were to prove a decade of disparate, almost contradictory, personal and professional lives. In the Senate, he grew in stature, championing issues relating to women, education, gay rights, Aids policy and, most significantly in Ireland, immigration, while health became what he called “the cause of my life”.
Privately, however, Teddy still had much about him of the naughty little brother, the hellraiser, the womaniser. And his behaviour then gives pause for thought on how Jack and Bobby may have lived out their middle years, had they survived to enjoy them. We now know that privately, they had big sexual appetites and some problems with discretion and self-denial that may well have grown less charming and more embarrassing with age, and, in a changing world, may have found fewer people willing to cover up their indiscretions. Which, after his divorce, was what Ted Kennedy found to be the case.
The start of the Nineties marked what you might call a growing up for Ted Kennedy. By this stage, the attention paid to his personal life threatened to obliterate any good he had done as a politician. Late-night TV shows lampooned his bloatedness and increasingly florid complexion. Magazines as solemn as Time wrote about his romantic adventures and one gossip tabloid went so far as publishing pictures of him in an intimate clinch on a boat. A magazine profile described the last of the Kennedys as “an aging Irish boyo clutching a bottle and diddling a blonde” and his political popularity threatened to end disgracefully.
But contradiction is part of being a Kennedy, perhaps. Ted was working hard, but playing hard, too, as he had been raised to, and a counterpoint to his rich-kid arrogance and carry-on was the tinge of tragedy that stemmed from the assassinations and persisted. One of the reasons Ted Kennedy became a champion of universal health care was the fact that he had seen the inequality of the American health service close up, first when he broke his back in a plane crash in the early Sixties and later when his 12-year-old son, Teddy, was diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer and had his leg amputated, and earlier this decade, when his daughter Kara survived lung cancer. But, somewhat understandably as children of tragedy and privilege, many of the younger generation of Kennedys had their troubles and Ted had tried to be father to them all.
His own son, Patrick, went into rehab in the mid-Eighties, while Robert Kennedy Jr was arrested for heroin possession around the same time and, later, Robert's brother, David, died of a drug overdose, while another brother, Michael, died in a 1997 skiing accident. Robert's son, Christopher Kennedy Lawford — son of Patricia Kennedy — later wrote about his addictions and recounted in them how Ted was both a dad to them and a fellow rabble-rouser. And while Ted has always denied he ever had a problem with alcohol, he certainly had some times with it.
In the early Nineties, however, things caught up with Ted Kennedy, as they do with the passing of time. Over Easter 1991, he visited the family home in Palm Beach, Florida, with various nephews and his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, whose husband Stephen — a sort of troubleshooter and wise man of the family — had recently died of cancer. The Florida pile, it was later said, was known as the Kennedy party house and certainly, on the Friday night, the boys had a time of it, ending up in a nightclub and later bringing home two girls. The boys were William Kennedy Smith, Patrick Kennedy and Ted, who, it should be said, was no boy at this stage.
The next morning, Patricia Bowman made a claim of rape against William Kennedy Smith, which ended in a court case that saw him acquitted, a result for which many credited Ted's appearance as a witness for the prosecution. Prior to the case, however, Ted Kennedy had made another appearance that signalled he was at a turning point. At a 25th-anniversary celebration of the JFK School of Government, Ted made a speech that took people aback and made a bid for redemption on the back of various personal pecadilloes and embarrassments.
“I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than disagreements with my positions,” Ted said. “It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight. To them I say, I recognise my own shortcomings -- the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realise that I alone am responsible for them, and I must confront them.”
Then, tellingly, Ted contrasted his position with that of his brothers. “I have been given length of years and time. And as I approach my 60th birthday, I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a quarter of a century.” It was, perhaps, time to grow up, time to move on from the stage in life at which his brothers were frozen, against their will, while he grew older.
It was interesting that the counsel prosecuting William Kennedy Smith called Ted Kennedy as their witness. They expected, perhaps, that his account of that night would damn his nephew with a family disregard for others and a family tendency to bad behaviour. Instead, Ted brought dignity and a sense of nobility to the stand and caused people to remember again this family as both lucky and, by contrast, terribly unlucky. Ted was the patriarch on that stand and continued in that vein from that point on.
Many credit Victoria Reggie with helping to fully turn around Ted Kennedy, however. A Washington lawyer and the daughter of a Louisiana judge, Edmund Reggie, who had always been a close Kennedy-family supporter, she and Ted are often explained as a great meeting of like minds, his first real love affair, and a huge stabilising influence. She had sat near him, relatively unnoticed, during that confessional 1991 speech and they married in 1992.
With the death of John F Kennedy Jr a decade ago, the sadness of the Kennedy family seemed almost to have no end. Ted, in his 70s, had seen so much death, lost so many close to him. He'd had good times, but, in a way, he'd paid for them. And he had been the constant, the one who saw people through and the one who may have faltered in the middle but righted himself ultimately. He was, by all accounts, a great support to Caroline Kennedy, the last of her branch of the family, who may well have felt herself at sea after the death of her younger brother. And while several of the younger Kennedys have roles in politics -- with Christopher Kennedy tipped to take Obama's Illinois Senate seat in 2010 -- it was to Caroline people looked for the next wave of the family business as she put her name forward to replace Hillary Clinton representing the state of New York. When Caroline later withdrew her name, then, it seemed like the end of an era.
Because, seriously ill as he is with brain cancer that was diagnosed last year, Ted Kennedy is not only the last of his brothers, but the one who has made it to old age and the one who will die of natural causes. And a lot will go with him. The truth of Chappaquiddick. A last tie to Camelot. A world more forgiving of a flawed man if his intentions seemed good and his commitment sincere.