Ted Kennedy: The True Measure Of The Man

There was a time when nobody would have predicted that this particular holy venue would have been attended by Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush and Obama. Also in the pews of The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston were John McCain and a surprising number of high-profile Congressional Republicans. Singer Tony Bennett, basketball legend Bill Russell and actor Jack Nicholson were there as well, as was Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. It was the Ted Kennedy funeral mass.

If Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy were alive at this moment, I’m convinced, at 83, he would still be in the Senate. He’d be just as passionate, committed, intelligently informed and supportive of the issues and legislation that really mattered, as he was in all of his 47 years as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

In sharp contrast, his early years lived up to his nickname, “Teddy.” He was a Teddy all right. Kicked out of college, he was a hard-drinking, hard-partying, skirt-chasing, rounder, who appeared to be possessed of nary a serious thought. He was the quintessential definition of the term, black sheep. And who wouldn’t be, surrounded at the dinner table by the sibling likes of brothers, Joe Jr. Jack and Bobby and bright and accomplished sisters, Eunice, Jean, Patricia and Kathleen.

Another sister, Rosemary, was a compelling example of a seemingly endless chorus of tragedies to befall the Kennedy family. She grew up as a child with “special needs” in today’s lingo. Her life was effectively ruined by a botched lobotomy at age 23, leaving her with the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old. She was institutionalized from the time of the lobotomy until her passing at 86.

Ted experienced his first deeply personal loss during the WW 2 year of 1944 when his eldest brother, Naval Aviator, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was blown apart in an airborne explosion in an extraordinarily dangerous mission. Joe was 29, Ted, but 12. Four years later, his sister, Kathleen, was killed in a plane crash. In 1964, Ted, himself almost died in a plane crash. An aide and the pilot perished. And the John Jr. crash, killing John, wife Caroline and her older sister, Lauren, had to have a profound impact on Uncle Ted.

There’s a certain tragic irony in the role that plane crashes have played in Kennedy’s life. He, himself, was an enthusiastic private pilot. He was also an Army veteran and law school grad. The highlights of his personal life can be seen at the History site. By the time Ted was 36, three brothers, and a sister, had all died unnatural deaths at ages 46, 43, 29 and 28 respectively. For all practical purposes, Rosemary “died” at 23. JFK Jr. was 38.

Forgive the bleeding heart, but such losses of loved ones certainly had to play into the early lack of control exhibited by a young Teddy. The nadir of Kennedy’s life was likely the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident resulting in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne. He offered her a ride to a Ferry after a party for campaign workers.

He had taken a wrong turn and had driven off a bridge into a tidal channel As a 37-year-old married Senator, he displayed total irresponsibility and cowardice in swimming away from the accident after purported rescue attempts, leaving Mary to claw at windows and drown in the overturned car just over a week short of her 29th birthday.

He didn’t contact authorities for a span of time variously reported to be from 9 to 10 hours. In what should have been either voluntary or involuntary Vehicular Manslaughter or Felony DUI, the span of hours and his ‘name’ got him off with an absurdly inadequate two-month suspended jail sentence and temporary loss of license.

The sentence of the stigma of that night, however, was never-ending. At the very least it cost him a better-than-even shot at the presidency.

It’s hard to pin down the exact time of Kennedy’s epiphany; the time when he buckled down and applied all of his brainpower, empathy and willingness to work like a dog for positive change in Congress. It could have been the stabilizing influence of his 1992 second marriage to Victoria Reggie, but I think it was the Kennedy genes that drove Ted to give his working life to those of lesser circumstances, no matter what was happening in his personal life.

I was recently reminded of his contributions while reading Elizabeth Warren’s 2014 memoir, “A Fighting Chance.” She loved Kennedy. She thought of approaching him while she served on the five-person, Congressional Oversight Panel. COP was designed to formulate policies to bring the “too big to fail” beneficiary banks in line. These financial behemoths had benefited mightily from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Arguably, even more important to Warren was her baby, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that she was trying to get off the ground against tremendous odds. Banks were reportedly spending a million dollars a day in lobbying and campaign funds to forestall any meaningful reform. It looked like the agency was going nowhere.

After endless months of dead-ends, she turned to Kennedy. She hadn’t done so sooner because he seemed bogged down in leadership positions in every progressive cause in Congress. Much to her delighted surprise, even with his satchel overflowing, the Senator promised to do everything he could to make things right. And he did, along with Barney Frank on the House side. Sadly, Kennedy died before his effort could be brought to fruition.

After the Senator’s passing, Warren thought about her initial meeting with Kennedy. “I thought about his battered, overstuffed satchel. I thought about how many times he had taken up the fight for working people. No one could ever take his place. Thanks to Frank and the initial Kennedy effort, CFPB became an official government agency headed by former Ohio Attorney General, Rich Cordray.

The book’s recounting got me to thinking. I had never been a big follower of Ted. Bobby and I once debated a bunch of right-wingers in Detroit, way back when and I followed JFK’s career closely, but, I must confess that Ted was almost an afterthought, given his early reputation. The History Website tracked some 300 Kennedy-sponsored bills that became law. He co-sponsored 550 more that are also on the books.

He missed by a year the passage of his pet project, a health care bill for all. He was a key figure in the iconic American with Disabilities Act of 1990 and his imprimatur dominates women’s and children’s rights, immigration reform, minimum wage hikes, gay, minority and voting rights and every decent piece of legislation that’s been signed into law in nearly five decades. It’s not hyperbole to claim Kennedy as one of the most influential lawmakers in U.S. history.

In mourning perhaps the greatest and most flawed Kennedy of them all, his son Ted Jr. summed up his dad’s life as well as anyone in this moving funeral remembrance speech.


Image via US News

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