The death of Ted Kennedy severs the last direct link to the Camelot era of US politics, that period in the early 1960s when his brother, John F, was elected president and the nation was imbued with a sense of hope and optimism.
Those hopes were to be dashed two years later by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas and ever since, it seems, the world has been a more cynical place. In 1968 Ted’s other illustrious brother, Robert, also fell victim to a gunman.
For most of his life Ted Kennedy lived in the shadow of his dead brothers. Yet, ironically, he was the great achiever. We will never know what John or Robert could have accomplished, but Ted leaves behind him an enduring legacy of legislation, some 300 bills, all founded on the same principles of liberalism and concern for the vulnerable. Ted was first elected a senator in 1962 and has held that seat continuously ever since, making him the third longest serving senator in US history.
Apart from one ill-considered attempt to become president, running against fellow Democrat and incumbent Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy never attained high office at the centre of power. Yet, remarkably, he was one of the most influential politicians in America and a well-respected figure internationally. His liberal instincts and his ability to do deals across political boundaries — even rabid Republicans could be seduced by his arguments — meant he was able to go where others feared to tread and thus able to achieve considerable consensus of a wide range of internal issues.
In Northern Ireland we remember him most for his involvement in the peace process. Although he had called for the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland in 1971 at the outset of the Troubles — an utterance long remembered by unionists — he later tempered this emotional response, in large part due to the influence of SDLP leader John Hume, who used his friendship with the Massachusetts senator to harness Irish-American opinion behind his peace drive. Ted Kennedy was pivotal in getting President Clinton to give Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa
to visit America and help in the process of bringing the republicans in from the cold. From that flowed the current power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland. The award of an honorary knighthood from the Queen for his peace work demonstrates the value in which he was held.
Ted Kennedy suffered from the real curse of the Kennedys, being sprinkled with stardust and yet never far from scandal. His involvement in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick was a scandal which dogged his political career and prevented him ever becoming the king of American politics. But he was a king-maker, as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama can testify after crucially gaining his support during their campaigns.
Unlike his brothers, Ted Kennedy grew old and grew in stature with age. While John and Robert are remembered for what might have been, Ted has left behind a list of solid accomplishments. In his own way he fulfilled the promise of Camelot.