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Joan Vennochi | web exclusive

A legend among ghosts

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / May 20, 2008

JACK AND BOBBY were all too mortal. So, immortality seems only fair for Ted, the surviving brother and baby of the famous Kennedy clan.

That's why the news that Senator Edward M. Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor is so shocking. In Massachusetts, it is natural, if not logical, to believe that he will live forever.

Periodically, the names of potential successors to the seat Kennedy held since 1962 will surface. But the strength of the Kennedy legend, coupled with Kennedy's legendary work ethic, always make the speculation seem theoretical. Who in Massachusetts can imagine a day when Ted is not shuttling between Washington and the family compound in Hyannis Port?

Immortality also seemed possible because Kennedy works so hard to keep alive the memories of his brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. That was clear during my first and only visit to Hyannis Port. I was one of a group of journalists invited in May 2004 in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention. It was held that year in Boston because Kennedy wanted it there, as a way to honor the path JFK first carved to Washington.

It was a beautiful May evening on Cape Cod. The rambling houses and lush lawn provided a backdrop worthy of a movie set. Kennedy's dogs skipped playfully across the grass. In brief remarks, the senator spoke about "Mother" and "Joe" and "Jack" as if we were all family intimates.

"That was my brother Bobby's house ... That was the president's house, right behind Bobby," he said, taking time to chat graciously with each guest. "The view has been the same my whole life," he added, as he looked out to the twinkling lights on a small island off in the distance.

He outlived his famous brothers by decades, long enough to become legendary in his own right. He never entirely escaped the shadow of Chappaquiddick, but his accomplishments are grand enough to bring him beyond it. In recent years, he has been the one strong, clear voice brave enough to stand up to a president and a war. His unflinching ideology makes him the darling of the left. It also made him a target of the right, which, for years, considered his world view poisonous.

But from the moment Kennedy was first rushed to the hospital, accolades began pouring in from politicians from the left to the right. They increased in volume as the news spread of what sounds like a serious diagnosis and a tough medical battle ahead.

For the first time, the political world is forced to contemplate the possibility of life without Ted Kennedy. It turns out that the thought is as shocking to his longtime enemies as it is to his family and friends. He is the living embodiment of a legend that still resonates with a generation that still isn't ready to put down that torch.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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