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Triumph And Tragedy

The seesaw life of Edward M. Kennedy.

Over the past 40 years, Edward Moore Kennedy was the grand statesman of the Democratic liberalism that emerged out of the 1960s. He was a loyalist to his principles even when those principles fell completely out of fashion. He overcame personal flaws and searing travails to become a masterful legislator, congressional infighter, and builder of unlikely coalitions. Ironically, he achieved all of this only after he had surmounted the political entitlement that made his career possible in the first place. In an even deeper irony, of the three famous and powerful Kennedy brothers, it was youngest brother, Teddy the latecomer, who arguably had the greatest impact on American politics and government. These travails and these ironies gave Kennedy's life dimensions of American triumph as well as of prideful, classical tragedy.

When Kennedy first ran for the Senate in 1962, at the age of thirty, for the seat that JFK vacated when he was elected president, the rap against him was that if his name were Edward Moore his candidacy would be a political joke. It was true, of course: Although he was hardly a reluctant candidate, he was very much the dutiful, slightly wayward, much younger brother in what some viewed warily as a family that was busily acquiring a new firm, otherwise known as the federal government of the United States. As the assistant district attorney for Suffolk County three years out of law school, Kennedy's surname was really all he had going for him, and everybody knew as much--but that name, and the presumptions about the politics and connections that went with it, were magic in Massachusetts. Kennedy turned out to be an effective campaigner on the stump, and his supporters even took some knowing delight in upbraiding his high-minded critics. At one tense meeting in Cambridge, the eminent law professor Mark DeWolfe Howe waxed apoplectic about the young Kennedy's manifest lack of qualifications. "Relax, Mark," replied Kennedy supporter Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. "Ted's a candidate for the United States Senate, not the faculty of Harvard Law School." Kennedy won his primary and handily defeated his Republican opponent, the scion of another Massachusetts political dynasty, George Cabot Lodge II. Never again, through eight re-election campaigns, would Kennedy fail to win less than 55 percent of the vote.

Amid catastrophe and near-catastrophe, Kennedy continually summoned the will to transcend himself, even as he struggled with self-doubt about living up to his brothers' examples. He had been in the Senate barely a year when the world collapsed in Dallas; and then the world kept on collapsing for the rest of the 1960s, beginning with his own near death (and permanent injury) in a plane crash only seven months after President Kennedy's assassination. Surviving the crash, though, awakened a new sense of purpose and seriousness in the young senator. He consulted with members of JFK's brain trust about how he might most usefully spend his long convalescence in reading and writing projects (much as his brother had during his own medical ordeals). He began taking an active interest in the inadequacies of the nation's health care system, an issue he would make one of his own. But another pattern also developed: As Kennedy matured into a leading force on Capitol Hill, he repeatedly drifted and dashed against the rocks.

For many years, he did not understand how the incident at Chappaquiddick in July 1969 foreclosed the possibility that he would ever succeed JFK to the presidency or fulfill the promise of RFK's presidential campaign in 1968. In part, this was because he would never be able to explain his actions and inactions of that night adequately (except, perhaps, to the forgiving voters of Massachusetts). But the events also marked the beginning of what would become a convergence of celebrity scandal mongering and cynical prurience that forever changed the rules of American political journalism--and from which Kennedy, with his personal demons, would not escape for decades.

The disgrace of Chappaquiddick helped cost Kennedy his position as Senate Majority Whip in 1971; and though he seriously toyed with the idea, he also turned aside his admirers' stubborn hopes that he would challenge President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. Yet Kennedy picked himself up once again, and by concentrating on his Senate committee work and focusing on some key issues, he accomplished a great deal in the '70s. As chair of the Senate subcommittee on health care, he helped lead the fight for what became the National Cancer Act in 1971, and pushed hard, albeit fruitlessly, for more ambitious health care reform. He also became a leading voice for campaign finance reform, for the overdue deregulation of the trucking and airlines industries, for negotiating a settlement to the sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland, and for aiding escapees from political and military turmoil around the globe.

Kennedy's decision to unseat the incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter in 1980 was the worst political error he ever made. He was incensed at what he considered Carter's betrayal: specifically, of health care reform, and, more generally, of liberal principles. The effort was unmistakably a Kennedy restoration campaign, of a kind that some Democrats had been awaiting for more than a decade. Yet at first, Kennedy sounded strangely ineffectual, unable, when caught off-guard by a television interviewer, to articulate a coherent rationale for his candidacy. He also carried the weight of a collapsing marriage, as well as of the public's lingering outrage about Chappaquiddick. After taking his campaign all the way to the Democratic convention, Kennedy made a strong impression with a concession speech that stirred liberal idealists--but he then spoiled the political moment by snubbing Carter. The public slight widened a split in the party that contributed both to Ronald Reagan's victory in November, and to the Democrats' loss of the majority in the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.

True to his life's pattern, though, Kennedy rose to the occasion yet again in the aftermath of what many viewed as the electorate's repudiation of liberalism. In the 1980s and 1990s, he truly came into his own as a national lawmaker and political leader. The turbulence of his personal life did not end--his odd role in the alleged rape in Palm Beach in 1991, involving his nephew William Kennedy Smith, became fodder for satirists and Republicans--until his marriage to Victoria Reggie in 1992. But at the height of Reagan's presidency, Kennedy displayed masterly skill as a parliamentary combatant. As ranking member of the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, he became especially adept at building ad hoc alliances with select Republicans, thereby protecting and improving the Voting Rights Act, increasing funding for AIDS research, and pressing forward the debate on health care reform. His polemical attack on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987, delivered on the floor of the Senate, unsettled some Democrats and earned him the permanent hatred of some movement conservatives--but it was a political masterstroke which caught the confident Reagan administration unawares and set the stage for Bork's self-destruction in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee.

Named to the Armed Services Committee in 1983, Kennedy also became the leading liberal critic of Reagan's foreign policy, sometimes taking stances (as in his vocal support for the idea of a nuclear freeze) which do not look so compelling in retrospect, but taking others (especially over halting the bloodbath in Central America and defying the apartheid regime in South Africa) which earned him lasting honor. Even though Kennedy and Reagan occupied very different ideological poles, both men were flexible and pragmatic enough to work together on specific matters, most notably in 1986 when, with the approval of the White House, Kennedy traveled to Moscow and thereafter acted as a go-between on arms control. (Kennedy also used that occasion to press the case of beleaguered Soviet dissidents and Jews--not a top priority for most Democratic liberals--and he ended up securing the release of several "refuseniks," including Anatoly Sharansky.)

Kennedy's past, distant and recent, continued to dog him. (His best biographer to date, Adam Clymer, describes Kennedy's forced silence in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991--necessitated by Kennedy's continuing reputation for womanizing--as the worst moment in his Washington career.) But especially after his remarriage, he consolidated his national leadership. Always the voice of '60s liberal idealism, he became evermore the expert strategist and deal-maker. Health care remained a top priority. Unable to salvage Bill Clinton's doomed health care plan on Capitol Hill in 1994, Kennedy fought for less comprehensive but important reforms. In 1996, he and Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum secured passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act; also in 1996, he led the way on the Mental Health Parity Act, which forced insurance companies to treat victims of mental illness more equitably. The following year, he, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, and First Lady Hillary Clinton joined forces over establishing the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the largest expansion of taxpayer-supported health insurance coverage for children since the initiation of Medicare in 1965. Earlier during the Clinton presidency, Kennedy steered the successful passage of the National and Community Service Trust Act that created the AmeriCorps program.

By now recognized as an elder statesman, Kennedy was unfazed by the outcome of the 2000 election, and he went back to work, supporting the overthrow of the Taliban but excoriating the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. On the domestic front, Kennedy led the fight for what became known as No Child Left Behind, which he supported unstintingly until 2002, when he accused President Bush of going back on his word on funding and implementation. On health care, he tried to work with the Bush White House on extending Medicare to cover prescription drugs, only to be betrayed once again when the final bill caved in to the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He also became the Democratic leader on immigration reform--a matter he had worked on for 40 years, since passage of the monumental immigration act of 1965. Once again he gathered strong bipartisan support, and once again he was met by disappointment.

The 2008 election ought to have been the pinnacle of Kennedy's long career, bringing to the White House a young Democratic president to whom he had symbolically passed the torch of 1960s Kennedy liberalism, his liberalism. With health care reform back on the agenda and a new president who preached the virtues of bipartisanship, Kennedy would have been in a position to become a still greater Senate leader, transcending himself not after a setback, but, for once, after a victory, plying the legislative expertise and dexterity he had so carefully mastered over the decades. Instead, last May, came the news of his fatal illness.

Edward Kennedy was a powerful presence through several political eras and near-eras, from what might have become the Age of John F. Kennedy through the Age of Reagan. His political longevity testified to the love of his constituents, through thick and thin, but also to his persistence, his ability to learn and to grow, and then to surpass himself. The sadness, the squandering, the might-have-beens of his life would have crushed others, but Kennedy endured, his principles intact. Of him, it could be written, in Yeats's words, that "[b]eing Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." But also being an American, and being Edward Kennedy, he accomplished extraordinary good for the nation from a position he won because of his family's name, but that he finally held superbly, with hard-won talents and a compassionate heart.