A hero for his time: The fall and rise of Edward Kennedy

Edward Kennedy was the last big player in the most extraordinary dynastic drama in US political history. David Usborne on a life of tragedy and redemption
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If you were a political reporter in Washington in the late summer of 1994, you'd have found yourself travelling with surprising frequency to Massachusetts. The interest in a certain state-wide election was morbid in a way. After three decades serving in the US Senate, Ted Kennedy was locked in battle with a clean-cut former businessman named Mitt Romney. And it looked as if he might lose.

We had our reasons. I still recall watching Kennedy on the trail. He walked with a shuffle and his cheeks looked like sponges filled with booze and the other excesses of a second bachelorhood. He had the air of a man struggling, who had had enough – of the burdens of his family name, of the expectations that had been placed on him, and of all the years of scandal, followed by tragedy, followed by more scandal.

It seemed to us that most Americans might have had enough too. JFK's widow, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, had died earlier that year. All that seemed to remain of the so-called Camelot, the quasi-royal clan spawned by Joseph and Rose Kennedy in Boston, was Teddy; and his flaws seemed to be catching up with him. He was tainted and exhausted. Nationally, his approval rating was a sad 22 per cent.

Of course, that all seems daft now, even disrespectful of a man who actually had so much more ahead of him – not least a fantastically successful second marriage, then in its infancy, to a Boston lawyer, Victoria Reggie. Maybe we were overestimating this mannequin Mormon named Romney, who was as physically lithe and presentable as Kennedy was halting and derelict. Before the campaign ended, Teddy found his roar, and Romney, who lost by 17 points, was exposed as flimsy.

The pundits had forgotten that favourite of all the Kennedy lines, lifted from a Tennyson poem and doubtless first impressed upon all his sons by old Joe at the kitchen table in Hyannis, the Cape Cod town that remained Teddy's home until the end: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." And then there is that old adage about suffering and strength. Teddy was the embodiment of it. Edward Moore Kennedy was also an archetypal silver screen hero, buffeted equally by tragic happenstance beyond his control and by the shortcomings of his own character, who, finally, makes good. Except that his story was not fiction.

The days to come will be filled with affectionate tributes and, more discreetly, memories of the senator's less glorious moments. "Ted Kennedy always baffled me," a former Time correspondent and biographer, Lance Morrow, noted. "He was so astonishingly productive as a senator, yet his private life was extremely messy. When it came to Kennedy's character, you'd feel whipsawed judging it."

Three years before that race against Romney, the Senator spoke himself of the potholes of his life in a speech at the John F Kennedy School of Government. He had been tainted once more by a tipsy night out in Florida with a young nephew, William Kennedy Smith, who ended up being tried (and acquitted) for attempted rape. "I recognise my own shortcomings – the faults in the conduct of my private life," he said. "I realise that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."

No Kennedy story is complete without reference to Joe, grandson of Irish immigrants and one-time ambassador to London, recalled in 1941 for harbouring Nazi sympathies. With Rose, he had nine children, and his desire to see one of them confound the snobs and critics by assuming high political office – if possible the presidency – became his mission. "The big thing we learnt from Daddy," Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Teddy's elder sister (who herself died earlier this month), once said, "was win. Don't come in second or third – that doesn't count – but win, win, win." That ambitious zeal was handed on to the children as a gift or, perhaps, a burden.

Rosemary Kennedy, born in 1918, was a depressive mental patient who found herself discreetly hidden away. In 1941, Joe subjected her to a lobotomy. Though she lived until 2005, she remained incapacitated for the rest of her life. Teddy was just 12 years old when Joe Jr, the son on whom the old man had pinned all his hopes, was killed test-piloting a B-24 Liberator in England. It was 1944, and the so-called Curse of Camelot was beginning to show itself. The responsibility for realising his father's dreams shifted instantly to the somewhat sickly second son, John F. Kennedy.

But even a son in the White House was not enough for Joe. The year after JFK was inaugurated, Teddy ran to occupy the US Senate seat he had vacated. His opponent, Eddie McCormack, said that Kennedy's viability as a candidate was purely on account of his name. If he was Edward Moore, no one would consider him. Years later, speaking at McCormack's funeral, Kennedy confessed that the comment had been right and that he had never forgotten it. But Kennedy none the less prevailed and, until yesterday, had remained in the US Senate ever since. Two Senate incumbents today were not born when Teddy won that first time.

Once in the Senate, Teddy was heard to complain that the influence he thought he would have in his brother's White House had not materialised. Yet, in time, he had much more serious challenges to overcome – and family funerals to attend. First there was Jack's, in 1963, and then Robert Kennedy, slain in California in 1968 as he made his bid to reignite the Kennedy flame in the White House. When word came that Bobby had been shot, it fell to Ted to go to Hyannis to tell his father.

Who could ever say exactly what such a sequence of tragedy inflicted on Teddy? Biographers have described him living thenceforth with the feeling that he had a target painted on his back. If a door unexpectedly opened in a committee room, Kennedy's eyes would instinctively dart to watch for possible danger.

Then there was the pressure to take the obvious next step himself. In 1972 and 1976, Kennedy resisted calls to run for the White House, citing concerns about his safety. Most commentators saw a different reason: Chappaquiddick. The night in 1969 when he drove off a narrow bridge connecting Chappaquiddick to Martha's Vineyard – causing the death by drowning of his young passenger, Mary Joe Kopechne – became a national scandal. He left the scene and did not tell police what happened until the next morning, for which he was given a two-month suspended sentence. The death of Kopechne haunted him for ever. Alone it was probably enough to ensure that he could never be elected president, though he tried for the nomination in 1980. (Up against a mostly unpopular incumbent, Jimmy Carter, he none the less lost traction and withdrew for that year's national convention.)

But Kennedy remained in the Senate. And he was never able to shake that other responsibility, that of the surviving patriarch of Camelot. He was a surrogate father to the children of both JFK and Bobby. He attended every family wedding, anniversary, birthday and funeral while his own personal life hit the reefs over and over again. One son, Teddy Jr, was diagnosed with bone cancer and had a leg amputated, while another, Patrick, was a cocaine addict before he recovered and was himself elected to Congress. His 1958 marriage to Joan Kennedy was for years in slow collapse, ending in divorce in 1982. Headline writers salivated over the rumours of debauchery and drinking. "The mere mention of Edward Kennedy's social life is enough to make an editor's head throb," began one Time magazine story, written in 1979.

Kennedy became a butt in those years of late-night comedians. And as he built his political legacy of liberal legislation, championing everything from women's right to abortion to gun control, to minimum wage levels and to education, so he also became a lightning rod for conservative America. Yet even his foes recognised the suffering that had been uniquely his. In his eulogy to Jackie in 1994 he spoke of "an unbearable sorrow endured in the glare of a million lights". He might have said the same at the funeral of JFK Jr after his Martha's Vineyard plane crash in 1999 – or indeed of his own life.

The greatest tribute to Kennedy may be that from those lows of the early 1990s, he rose again to reassert himself on the US landscape more powerfully than ever, drafting new laws to repel the tide of conservatism and helping to launch a certain young African-American to the presidency. But, above all, in his last years he achieved personal peace and happiness as well. Now it is Victoria Reggie Kennedy who must endure the awful funeral duties for her beloved husband and do so under the blinding glare that Camelot always brings.

Triumph and disaster: Landmarks in the Kennedy story


Joseph Kennedy Sr, who was born in Boston in 1888, marries Rose Fitzgerald. They settle in Brookline, Massachusetts, where they have nine children.


As the Second World War approaches, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr is appointed to serve as the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom.


Rosemary Kennedy, the oldest Kennedy daughter, is institutionalised after a lobotomy reduces her mental faculties. She dies there in 2005.


Joseph P Kennedy Jr, the oldest Kennedy child, dies in a plane crash over the English Channel during the Second World War.


Kathleen Kennedy, the fourth Kennedy child, dies in a plane crash in France, aged 28.


President John F Kennedy (elected in 1960) is assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas.


Senator Robert Kennedy is assassinated in Los Angeles on the eve of his victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.


Senator Edward Kennedy drives off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. His aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, dies when he leaves the scene without seeking help.


Senator Kennedy secures an increase in the minimum wage, cementing his reputation as a leading liberal.


John Kennedy Jr, the son of President Kennedy, dies in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, along with his wife and sister-in-law.


Teddy, as Edward Kennedy is affectionately known, gives his support to presidential hopeful Barack Obama. He is also diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.


Teddy Kennedy dies on August 26, aged 77, leaving his sister Jean Kennedy Smith as the final surviving member of his generation of the dynasty.