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And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

The last of the Kennedy Brothers is laid to rest

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Ted Kennedy

Today the world said a fond farewell to the Senator of Massachussettes,  Edward Kennedy (1932-2009).  He had been ill for some time with malignant brain cancer.

Always known fondly as Ted, he was the last of the great Kennedy brothers that shaped America in the mid sixties, and the youngest of the original nine children.  His parents were Joseph Kennedy Senior and Rose Fitzgerald, the former being a US ambassador to the UK, and the latter being the daughter of the mayor of Boston, John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald.

Ted narrowly escaped being named George Washington Kennedy, as he was born of the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.

He was born into a family that was hugely ambitious and  Joe Kennedy ran his household with a rod of iron.    His early life was one of near constant movement from one city to another as his father’s political postings changed.  He spent several years at the court of St James in the UK, where his father was serving as ambassador.  As he was a Catholic he recieved his First Holy Communion from Pope Pius XII himself when, aged 7, he was taken to Rome.

His constant motion from school to school made him a mediocre, or perhaps just unsettled, student.  As the youngest child he was doted on by his parents, but they did expect him to do as well as his brothers, quite a tall order.

The Kennedy family has been mired by tragic death after death.  At an early age Ted’s oldest brother, Joe Kennedy Jr died when his plane exploded during the Second World War.  His sister, Kathleen Agnes was killed in a separate air crash.  Another sister, Rosemary, had a failed Lobotomy and spent the rest of her life as an invalid.

After several years in various schools Ted was at best an average student, but a hell of an American Football player.  He entered Harvard and gained a place at a winthrope house that was very sports-orientated and suited him well.  It was her that he first blotted his copybook.  He cheated on a spanish exam by getting a colleague to sit it for him.  Unfortunately he was found out and expelled, but was later allowed to reapply.

After Harvard he enlisted in the US army with an eye of working in Army Intelligence, but somebody somewhere would not allow it.  He became a military policeman instead, putting his physical presence to good use.  Ted served in Europe as security for the Supreme Allied Headquarters.  His father’s political connections kept him safely away from the Korean war.  Given Joe Senior’s losses of two children already, his motives are at least understandable.

After two years Ted was discharged from the Army as a Private First Class.

Ted re-entered Harvard with a more mature outlook and fared better this time.  He also gained interest from several professional football teams, notable the Green Bay Packers.  But by now Ted, older and wiser, figured there was more to life than football and womanising.  He decided to follow his brothers into another contact sport, politics.

After graduating Harvard he attended Law School at the University of Virginia and the Hague school of international law.  This time he studied hard and won the prestigious William Minor Lile Moot Competition.  It was here he had his first brush with automobile felony when he was arrested for driving without a licence.  He managed his brother, John’s re-election campaign for the Senate in 1958 when he won by a large margin, galvanizing him to go for the Presidency.  Meanwhile Ted graduated from law school with some practical experience under his belt.

It was around this time that he married Joan Bennett, a model and socialite.  They went on to have three children, Kara Anne, Edward Junior and Patrick.  But the marriage was not a happy one and Joan was a heavy drinker, while Ted kept up the bad Kennedy habit of womanizing.

During John Kennedy’s Presidential election campaign Ted worked hard and managed the campaign in the western states.  He took flying lessons and also bonded with potential voters by taking up their pass-times such as ski-jumping and bronc riding.  Amazingly, he survived the campaign with life and limb intact.  And he was now the President’s brother.

Ted was a good fifteen years younger than John, and he was still too young to fill the Senate seat for Massachusetts that John had just vacated.  He was 28 and he needed to be 30.  Furthermore he felt he was being compared unfairly to his more intelligent older brothers by his ever-pushy father.  However his father had a stroke later that year that left him without the power to speak or walk.

Finally in 1962 there was a special senate election in Massachusetts where Ted faced up to Ed McCormick.  By now there were already two Kennedy brothers in high office and many thought America was becoming something run like a dynasty.  But Ted had a lot of personal charisma, young good looks, and a powerful campaign machine behind him.  He won against McCormick by a margin of two to one.

When he entered the Senate he sensibly left his ego at the door, and quietly set to work.  He was different from his two brothers, in that he was more personable whereas John could be aloof and Bobby could be intense.

It was at this time, while in the Senate, that he was told of the murder of President John F Kennedy.  It was Ted who flew home to Massachusetts to tell their father.  The funeral of President Kennedy was one of the hardest of his life, and he stood to attention with his brother Bobby and the widow, Jackie, while John Kennedy Junior, still a small child, saluted his father’s coffin.

It was less than a year later that Ted his own brush with death when his aircraft crashed in bad weather into an orchid in Southampon, Western Massachusetts.  The pilot and Ted’s aide were killed while Ted, himself seriously injured, was pulled from the plane by fellow senator Birch Baye.  It seems Kennedys and planes just don’t mix.

While still convalescing from his injuries Ted won the Senatorial campaign for a second time, helped largely by his wife, Joan who did all his campaigning for him.  He won by a three to one margin while still at death’s door.

He returned to the Senate, still with back pain and a cane, to take on President Johnson over the poll tax.  He narrowly lost but he did gain a stronger legislative team from the experience.  He pushed through the Immigration and Nationality Act 1965 which changed the American demographic view.  He helped found the National Teachers Corps and took a much greater interest in health care.

During a tour of South Vietnam he saw first hand how weak the Vietnamese Republic’s military position was, and his message was:  “Shape up or we will ship out.”  Eventually, they did.

In spite of Ted’s advice, Bobby Kennedy decided to run for President against the serving President, Lyndon Johnson.  It was to be something of a grudge match, as Bobby and Lyndon had never got on.  The latter openly referring to the former as a snotty nosed kid.

Ted, now the head of the Kennedy election campaign apparatus, began laying the groundwork for a campaign in the west, as he had for John, eight years earlier.  He was ahead of Bobby, setting up rallies in San Francisco when he heard Bobby had been shot in Los Angeles.  Ted grieved heavily, his two brothers, his idols since childhood were gone from him.  He must have felt very alone.

As the senior surviving Kennedy he spoke at his brother’s funeral.  His words remain Bobby’s epitaph.

“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.”

In place of Bobby, Ted was asked to front the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.  But people were unsure if he was ready for the job, perhaps including Ted himself.  He declined the nomination for potential vice-president as he felt he had a more important role closer to home.

Ted became the surrogate father for no less than thirteen children,  including four of his own.  The children of John and Bobby Kennedy looked to Ted to be a benevolent uncle, which he proved undoubtedly to be.  He also became the family executor (not to be confused with executioner!), he negotiated the marriage contract between Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis, whom he had his doubts about.

It is a sad fact of life that people remember the million things you did right and always remember the few things you did wrong.  And, in 1969, Ted made a tragic error of judgment.

He had been to a party on the small island of Chappaquiddick, connected to Martha’s Vineyard, in July that year.  The party was a reunion for the ‘Boiler Room Girls’, a group of female staff who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s election campaign.  Also present were Jospeph Gargan, Ted’s cousin, and Paul Markham, a school friend of Gargans.

The following details are known from official testimony.

The party had been reasonably sedate (by Kennedy standards), and Ted decided to leave early.  One of the girls, Mary Jo Kopechne, asked for a lift back to her hotel.  No problem, Ted decided to drive her.  He had had a couple of drinks, nothing major, and it wasn’t a serious felony back then.  He had a chauffer present but he was having dinner, so Ted didn’t disturb him for a small errand he could do himself.

In the dark night they got a little lost in the unlit back roads of the small island, full of private estates with gated entrances.  They nearly backed into a police car and took off as fast as they could down yet another dark lane.  Slightly disorientated he suddenly saw two wooden poles ahead of him, these were the entrance to a small bridge.  What happened next was confused but Ted somehow drove the car off the bridge, without guardrail or barrier, and it turned over as it crashed into the water.

Somehow Ted managed to free himself but Mary Jo was not saved.  Ted tried several times to dive back down to save her but was somehow unable to reach her.  Panicked, possibly concussed, and perhaps still slightly drunk, Ted ran back to the cottage where the party was held to alert his two friends.  He told them away from the other ‘Boiler Room Girls’ to prevent a panic.

The crucial error was that neither Ted nor his friends alerted the authorities.

The other two, Gargan and Markham, had gone back to the site to try again to rescue Mary Jo, but in spite of diving several times, they were unable to rescue her.  They then urged Ted to report the accident to the authorities, but he seemed confused and unwilling to do so.  He went back to his hotel room to consider his few options.

He paced his room in a robe trying to work out a solution to his situation, with the most obvious choice of action somehow escaping him.  At eight AM the two friends Markham and Gargan returned for an emergency meeting.  The three men went back to Chappaquiddick on the ferry.  Ted used a payphone to make several calls to friends for advice.

Meanwhile the car had been found by two amateur fisherman who had made an early start before the summer sun  became too hot.  It was they who finally alerted the authorities.

Mary Jo Kopechne’s body was discovered in the car with her head pressed up in a small pocket above the waterline.  She could have survived in this air pocket for up to two hours before the air she breathed turned to carbon dioxide and killed her.  Surprisingly an autopsy never took place, as everybody assumed she had drowned.  A simple syringe into her lungs would have resolved the question, but this never happened.

Ted was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and sentenced to two months in prison, later suspended.   His prior good character and legal nous saved him a worse fate.  His wife, Joan Kennedy, who was pregnant at the time, had a miscarriage shortly after the incident.

Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral was attended by Ted and his wife, Joan.  She was later buried on Larksville mountain.  She was twenty eight years old.

It took Ted years to regain his reputation.  He lost the position of Senate Majority Whip to Senator Robert Byrd.  Something he felt was, in a way, a blessing.  He decided to concentrate on issues outside Democratic politics, such as health care reforms.  He also took an interest in the ‘Troubles’ that had started in Northern Ireland.  The Kennedy family started out in Wicklow before they emigrated.  He described them as ‘Britain’s Vietnam’, an inaccurate moniker.  There has been no conflict to compare to the Troubles in modern times.

Throughout the Seventies Ted stayed out of mainstream politics, knowing his reputation was tarnished, and he wasn’t deluded enough to try and pretend otherwise.  He decided against running for the 1972 Presidential election, although polls suggested that he may have had a better chance than he actually realised.

His eldest son, Edward Junior, was diagnosed with chrondosaracoma.  His left leg was amputated and he underwent a long and painful convalescence.  Nonetheless Ed Junior took to the slopes less than a year later with an experimental ski leg.  Nothing keeps a Kennedy down for long.  Maybe Ed Junior inspired his father to get his career back into gear.  However he had other problems.  His wife, Joan, was in and out of alcoholic rehabilitation and his other son, Patrick, suffered from severe Asthma.

In this period he stepped up his campaign for a national heath service.  He laid the groundwork for later campaigns by Hillary Clinton and the current President, Barrack Obama.

He was asked again to run for Presidential election in 1976, since the Democrats had no other strong front-runners.  He declined again.  His party instead chose Jimmy Carter, who turned out, against the odds, to be a winner.  During the Carter years Ted Kennedy stood in the wilderness, the name seemed forever associated with drama, tragedy and occasional scandal.

He spent a number of years travelling as an American Goodwill Ambassador, a job that suited his personable, disarming character well.  He visited China, and managed to get permission for a few Chinese dissidents to leave.  He visited the Soviet Union several times, and many other countries on his way here and there.  During these years he separated from his wife, whom was now deep in the throes of alcoholism.  Although they maintained they loved each other the situation was intolerable for both and their marriage was at an end.

After clashing with President Carter for many years, Ted decided to run for the highest office during the Presidential elections of 1980.   But surprisingly, his campaign was badly managed.  He rambled in interviews and, naturally, the question of his actions at Chappaquiddick were dissected.  He received death threats in the mail and took to wearing a bullet proof vest.  By this time Ted would be forgiven for hoping he would lose, but there was an upset.  He won the March 25 vote by 59 percent.  Carter counterattacked with adverts questioning Ted’s role in Chappaquiddick on TV.  Ted managed a second surprise victory in the Pennsylvania primary.  For a second time Carter check-mated him by winning eleven of twelve primaries in May.  Within a short time, the dream of a second President Kennedy was over.  Ted was hugely disappointed and exhausted, physically and emotionally.  He gave one last speech at the Democratic convention.

“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

For the next twenty years Senator Ted Kennedy continued to serve in the Senate, lionising the causes he believed in, protecting his extended family, often from themselves, and becoming a respectable figure in American politics.  In the UK we have him to thank for the large contribution he made to the peace process in Northern Ireland, that culminated in the Good Friday agreement.

He became the patron of a dashing young Politician from Hawaii, with film star good looks and charisma lacking in the Bush years.  Ted and Barrack Obama were good friends for many years and it was Ted who persuaded the President  to buy his daughters a Portuguese Water Dog, after letting the Obama girls play with his own water dog.

In his later years he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and it sadly took his life this week.  People queued for hours outside the Kennedy Library to pay their respects.

The last of the Kennedy brothers, who lived the longest, was perhaps the one who, over a long life, contributed the most to the American People.

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Written by Nick Gilmartin

August 28, 2009 at 7:51 pm

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