Richard Cohen: Ted Kennedy and the burden of legacy

Fate toyed with him. He was rich, famous, powerful. Yet he controlled so little

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In late November of 1979, I flew to Iowa with Edward Moore Kennedy. He was in first class and I was in coach, but at some point an aide came back and summoned me forward. Kennedy was seated on the aisle; I took the window seat, opened my notebook and asked a string of boilerplate questions. Why are you running for president and why couldn't you give television newsman Roger Mudd the reason when he interviewed you, and what about inflation? Then, for some reason, I asked him if he was having fun and he gave an answer I will never forget.

Fun had always been integral to Camelot, the Kennedy legacy – sailing and touch football and swimming, the body and the mind, both to their fullest. But just that week a deranged woman had entered his Senate office wielding a knife, and sometimes the backfire of a car would spread panic across Kennedy's face – a mini-moment bursting with John and Robert, of caissons and horses with reversed stirrups and muffled drums – and the campaign in Iowa had become a dreary slog. No one seemed to be having fun.

Kennedy's response was like a confession. Campaigning had been fun once, he said. It had been fun when he was younger. It had been fun to see the country and meet the people, but it was, by and large, fun no more.

"The basic joy of it went out with my brothers," he said.

My impulse was to hug him, to say, "You poor man, why are you doing this?" Of course I did nothing of the sort. Instead, I did the journalistically proper thing and closed my notebook. "Thank you, senator."

Kennedy back then was no Happy Warrior. It was clear to all that he was running for president – challenging a president of his own party! – not because of the talking points in his jacket pocket, but because it was his turn.

On the ground in Iowa, you could see proof of it. Former campaign workers had gathered – the John Kennedy crowd and the Robert Kennedy crowd. But they were no longer young, not willing to make their political bones all over again, this time in the punishing Iowa winter. They were settled in the careers of grown-ups, some of them lucratively. Besides, they did not necessarily believe in Edward Moore Kennedy. They believed in The Kennedys. A restoration was in progress and when it succeeded, they would all return to the court and pretend that Teddy was Bobby or John. In the meantime, they would contribute with memos or a phone call – and then mention them at a dinner party. Such fun!

Kennedy himself just put one foot in front of another. He was there under orders from a dead man, his father Joseph P Kennedy. John F Kennedy himself had laid it all out back in 1959: "Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our young brother, Ted, would take over for him." Joe Kennedy, the eldest brother, had been killed in the Second World War.

Ted lost. It was an exhilarating, liberating loss – a smashing refutation of the lie that winning is the only thing. The monkey of the White House was finally off his back. It was not that he was no longer his old man's son or not a Kennedy or not a product of 10 different schools and paternal neglect. It was just that he could now concentrate on being a senator. This he did extremely well but not, really, until another loss – this time to Robert Byrd for senate whip. Then he became, if not a very great senator, then a very important one. In his time, he made a difference and that is more than most of us can ever say.

Fate toyed with Teddy Kennedy. He was rich. He was famous. He was powerful. Yet he controlled so little. He drank too much, ate too much, risked too much, and did not have the imagination ever to question a liberalism that desperately needed updating. Fate took one brother after another, shoving him to the front of the line where he did not, really, want to be. Ultimate success eluded him; tragedy and failure enriched him – a life's journey that took him from being his father's youngest son to his very own man. He was born a Kennedy, but he died just one of us.

© The Washington Post

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