Never Meant to Be President: Ted Kennedy, Survivor

By
Addressing the Democratic National Convention in 1980.
Addressing the Democratic National Convention in 1980. Photo: Getty Images

Ted Kennedy drove around the city of New York through the night of June 7, 1968, after taking his brother Robert’s casket from La Guardia Airport to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, after praying and weeping for hours, after going to the Kennedy family’s business headquarters in the Pan Am Building to help with funeral plans. Unable to sleep, he tried to put words together to memorialize Bobby. And he did. Returning to St. Patrick’s the following day, Teddy gave a stirring eulogy that introduced him as the Kennedy Survivor.

A dozen years later, after an astonishingly catastrophic attempt to unseat incumbent president Jimmy Carter, Kennedy stepped to the podium of the Democratic National Convention on August 12, 1980. “Well, things worked out a little differently than I thought,” he began. “But let me tell you, I still love New York” — one place, at least, where he had smashed Carter in the primaries. Kennedy went on to deliver a thunderous defense of old-time liberalism, and set off one of the great floor demonstrations of all time.

Between these two memorable New York appearances, Kennedy was a perpetual president-in-waiting. He was the keeper of the Kennedy legacy and the leader of the American left, he was young, rich, and handsome, and most of the chattering classes assumed that he would take ultimate power whenever he decided to ask for it. The Nixon administration so feared Kennedy that on July 20, 1969, after announcing that Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon, President Nixon told then-speechwriter William Safire, “You know, this is quite a day on another front, too.” It was the day the Chappaquiddick story had broken, and Mary Jo Kopechne’s body was being flown home. The Carter administration so loathed Kennedy that it apparently scuttled a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty with the U.S.S.R. just because he had discussed details of the deal with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev.

But when antiwar liberals and grieving Democrats sought him out in 1968, Kennedy was in no way prepared to actually be president. Before Robert Kennedy’s murder, Teddy was preparing to settle into his Senate career. Afterward, he drank too much and drove too fast, and whatever happened at Chappaquiddick, he didn’t report it to police for something like ten hours. “The moment Bobby died was like being at a tennis match,” Ted’s friend Jim Weighart told Peter Collier and David Horowitz for their book The Kennedys: An American Drama. “All of a sudden the heads swung toward Teddy. He wasn’t ready for that.”

And when Ted Kennedy did seek the presidency, he was in no way prepared to actually run. Yes, he was a Kennedy, and yes, he gave great stump speeches; few have ever been better at standing on ceremony. But Kennedy’s zenith as a national celebrity in the seventies coincided with a changeover in American politics, a privatization of purpose where the public became increasingly skeptical of government and the media began to focus more on politicians’ personal foibles than their civic accomplishments. In 1980, Kennedy wasn’t actually ideologically further from mainstream public opinion than Ronald Reagan. But he had little organization beyond old family ties. His traveling press openly ridiculed everything from his weight to the way he and then-wife Joan kissed. He couldn’t shake doubts about his character. And he never mastered the emotional vernacular of television.

Thing is, when Garry Wills wrote that Kennedy’s loss to Carter meant “the end of the entire Kennedy time in our national life,” he was fantastically wrong. Ted Kennedy simply went back to work, through 20 out of 28 years of Republican rule and ongoing family legal and medical traumas. He guided many liberal causes to legislative success, expanding civil rights laws, aid to education, and workplace-safety rules. He also put together broad coalitions to support policies he cared about on subjects as diverse as deregulating the trucking industry, supporting dissidents in the Soviet Union, and reforming immigration law. The commentators calling Kennedy one of the most influential senators in history aren’t exaggerating.

When called upon to act the liberal lion, Kennedy embraced the role heartily. In October 1983, for example, after getting a mistakenly sent Moral Majority membership card, he went to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College and memorably defended the separation of church and state: “I hope for an America where neither ‘fundamentalist’ nor ‘humanist’ will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls.”

But Kennedy was famously willing to work with politicians of any ideology. He respected Ronald Reagan’s vigorous leadership style, regularly gave Bill Clinton typed “to-do” lists, and collaborated with George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act. More important and less appreciated, he took piecemeal success wherever he could get it. Kennedy was unable to pass comprehensive national health-care legislation for more than 40 years. So instead, he worked with members of both parties to enact Medicare, Medicaid, COBRA, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, health insurance portability, and the States Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). Eventually that role of Kennedy Survivor, which had dogged him for as long as the presidency was a possibility, turned into an asset; he lived, and served, long enough to appreciate politics as a messy craft with a long horizon. He took what he could get for what he called “the cause of the common man and the common woman.” And then he came back for more.

In October 1994, a Boston TV reporter asked Kennedy, “What do you think are your personal strengths?” He answered immediately: “Perseverance.”