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Edward Kennedy - a political life

 Robert Kennedy, Edward Kennedy and then US President John F Kennedy - speaking while seated behind a desk, circa 1962
The Kennedy brothers have left an enduring legacy in the annals of American politics and history

By Nick Bryant
BBC News

Youth is the quality that we normally associate with the Kennedys, yet it was Ted Kennedy's longevity that made him such an irrepressible force on Capitol Hill.

Near universal is the view that he was Washington's most influential lawmaker of the past 50 years, which is all the more remarkable given that he was such a polarising politician.

Civil rights. Disability rights. The minimum wage. Immigration. Education. Campaign finance reform. And his signature issue, healthcare. Most, if not all, of the landmark progressive legislative of the past five decades has his imprint all over it.

While it was his passion for social justice that won him the epithet "Lion of the Senate", it was his detailed grasp of that institution's obscure rules and procedures which helped explain his prolific success.

A life in politics

Ted Kennedy was sworn in as a senator in November 1962, just weeks after his elder brother, John F Kennedy, had faced the greatest challenge of his presidency, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Back then, the US Senate was viewed as a bulwark against reform, a deeply conservative institution better known for blocking legislation than enacting it.

Ted Kennedy became instrumental in changing that perception, and it makes his record of accomplishment all the more impressive.

 Ethel Kennedy is escorted by her brother-in-law, Sen. Edward Kennedy, to their pew in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York for the funeral services of Robert F Kennedy, 1968
Over time, Edward Kennedy's stature as a master orator became well known

Jack and Bobby Kennedy used to joke that it was their younger brother, Teddy, who had been blessed with the richest political talent. So it was only natural that the presidential ambitions of the family became focused on him when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

At his brother's funeral at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Ted Kennedy gave a spell-binding eulogy, which he delivered in a halting voice.

"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

Now, he not only seemed like the natural heir, but the rightful heir, a much more substantial figure who could match the eloquence and inspirational power of his brothers.

But what became known as the Chappaquidick affair came the following year, crushing his hopes of an early run for the presidency and sullying the most famous trademark in American politics.

It did not help that rumours, innuendo and hard facts started to emerge about the dark side of Camelot, and led to an unflattering reassessment of his slain brother's presidency.

Unviable for the time being in presidential politics, Ted Kennedy threw more of his energies into his senatorial work, which ironically may have been the making of him.

If he could not be the president, he would make his mark on Capitol Hill.

Race for the White House

By 1980, Ted Kennedy's career had been sufficiently rehabilitated for him to embark on a bid for the White House. And the polls suggested that he could oust sitting President Jimmy Carter and steal the Democratic presidential nomination.

But whereas his brothers had been dazzling campaigners, Ted Kennedy was a flawed and surprisingly disappointing candidate.

Edward Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in 1980
Ted Kennedy gave an eloquent speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention

The defining moment of his campaign came even before he had officially announced his candidacy, when he was famously asked by the journalist Roger Mudd why he wanted to be president.

So rambling and incoherent was his response that it almost doomed his candidacy before it had officially begun.

Still, at the 1980 Democratic Convention, a graceful speech, rich in sentimentality, cemented his reputation as the conscience of the party and restored much of the lustre of the Kennedy name.

Other than Chappaquidick, perhaps the darkest interlude of his career came in the early 1990s.

The trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, over rape allegations embroiled him and the family in even more controversy, and his reticence when Anita Hill appeared during the Clarence Thomas hearings, accusing the judge of sexual harassment, showed the extent to which his private life had compromised his public service.

I was studying in his home state, Massachusetts, at the time and for a while it seemed that the politically unthinkable might become real: that Ted Kennedy might lose his Senate seat in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Yet his marriage to Victoria Anne Reggie in 1992 had brought much needed stability and discipline to his life.

Enduring mystique

There was perhaps no better illustration of Kennedy's enduring power and mystique than the efforts that the Obama and Clinton campaigns applied to securing his endorsement during last year's extraordinary campaign.

President Barack Obama meets with Senator Edward Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 2009
The Obama campaign was keen to win the endorsement of Ted Kennedy

Seeing something of his elder brothers in the first-term senator from Illinois, Ted Kennedy opted for Obama, and the prospect of a black Camelot.

Collectively, the Kennedys have made an extraordinary contribution to public life in America.

However, you could construct a highly persuasive historical argument that, in terms of legislative accomplishments and life-changing reforms, the country owes the greatest debt to Teddy.

Nick Bryant is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality.



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