TED KENNEDY was not a great man. The extraordinary events of his life clashed with his human frailties, and the frailties sometimes won. He had real talent as a legislative politician, but for his first few decades seemed destined mainly to be someone’s kid brother.
There was nothing modest, though, about Ted Kennedy’s accomplishments or the hard work that went into them. There was nothing modest about his compassion for those without means, for whom he toiled most of his life. There was nothing modest about his love of his family, and the way that devotion spurred him past his very real failures and frailties to amass a legacy to match that of any Massachusetts politician, including his brothers.
He staked his career to the highest goals of liberalism, and defended those goals through decades when his views were not shared by most, or even that many, of his fellow citizens. While he could have simply chosen to be the liberal movement’s spiritual leader, he opted instead to spend most of his life in the legislative trenches, fighting, bill by bill, to provide government aid to people in need of health care, education, and a road out of poverty. The programs he championed may not have solved those problems, but they brought tangible assistance to millions whose lives would have been far more difficult if not for Kennedy’s exertions on their behalf.
Now is a time to think, too, of the millions of people with cancer whose treatments were developed with billions of research dollars for which Kennedy was the leading - and most relentless - advocate. Of the people with the AIDS virus for whom Kennedy was instrumental in securing government funding that now covers half of all Americans living with HIV. Of the millions of people with disabilities whose lives were transformed by his advocacy for the Americans with Disabilities Act. And of the tens of millions of Americans whose immigration to the United States from continents other than Europe would not have been possible without the Immigration Act of 1965 that Kennedy sponsored.
In retrospect, the defining moment of Ted Kennedy’s life came in June 1968. His brother Bobby was assassinated in Los Angeles, and Ted, at 36, suddenly realized that his life would no longer be his own. Most people spend their careers trying to match their skills to endeavors that are meaningful and rewarding to them. Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have that luxury: He would have to realize not only his own ambitions but those of his hard-driving parents and his martyred older brothers. Then there were the 13 fatherless children who would rely on him, as much as his own three kids. There were also the thousands of former officials from the Kennedy administration for whom he would be a leader. And there were the tens of millions of Americans who believed that only another Kennedy presidency could cure the ills of the ’60s - that only a Kennedy could speak to the young and the old, the hawks and the doves, the people of all races striving for fairness and dignity.
Kennedy spent some of that summer of 1968 sailing by himself in silent contemplation, adrift in a world he couldn’t control and which seemed at any moment ready to kill him. It turned out not to be his death but his survival of a car crash on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 that marked his fate. His failure to immediately assume responsibility for the accident that killed a young woman in the car he was driving gravely damaged his chances of being president. Worse, the implication that he was thinking of his political interests rather than the woman’s life during the eight hours that the crash went unreported followed him all his years, even though friends insist that the judgment was unfair. He had suffered a concussion. He wasn’t himself.
His only presidential campaign ended in failure, and, during his middle years, his personal life was usually raucous, sometimes embarrassing, and often unhappy. But it was during those years, as well, that he made his loneliest and most courageous stands, building coalitions to preserve the civil rights legacy of the ’60s from the Reagan administration’s attempts to dismantle it.
In his later decades, with strength from his second marriage and a ripening paternal relationship with the Commonwealth and its citizens, he reached a new level of effectiveness in the Senate, helping to bring health care to more children while improving benefits for elderly Americans, and increasing federal aid to education. He also drew on his experience of repeatedly having to summon strength amid tragedies to help other individuals in the Commonwealth cope with their own losses. Like his weekly appointment to read to schoolchildren, these daily phone calls to grieving constituents attested to his strength of character and the depth of his commitment to other people.
Human frailties kept Kennedy from being the leader that his most feverish admirers imagined that he would be. But his humanity also redeemed him. Often described as the most thoughtful and empathetic of the Kennedy brothers, and the most loving uncle to his large family, Kennedy bridged the gap between personal kindness and the politics of compassion. When pushing legislation full of complex formulas and percentages, he could always tell exactly how many families would benefit. He saw past the numbers to the souls in need. Those people, like so many of his Massachusetts constituents of almost 47 years, owe him their enduring respect and gratitude.
He made Massachusetts larger in the world of politics, and in its commitment to the highest aspirations of fairness, equal opportunity, and concern for the disadvantaged.
The state already feels smaller without him.