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News Analysis

Beyond Camelot: His shining moments endure

By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / August 26, 2009

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Ted Kennedy played a leading role in perhaps the greatest political drama of the 20th century - the dawning of the New Frontier and the soul-crushing assassinations that followed - but he will be remembered by history for his legislative achievements in health care, education, civil rights, and immigration.

The fact that his tangible accomplishments transcended his mythic role in the Kennedy drama attests to the vast extent of his legislative impact. In each of four areas, he dominated legislative politics for more than four decades, spanning 10 presidencies, and played a large role in transforming the government’s relationship to the people.

Bill by bill, provision by provision, he expanded government health support to millions of children and the elderly, helped millions more go to college, opened the immigration doors to millions of new Americans from continents other than Europe, and protected the civil rights bulwark of the ’60s through a long period of conservative domination.

And by the time his life ended Tuesday night, surrounded by loved ones in a gentle scene that contrasted sharply with the violent deaths of his brothers, Ted Kennedy had built a nuts-and-bolts legacy to stand beside that of his presidential brother as a figure of hope and his senatorial brother as a figure of compassion.

“He was always prepared, always worked hard, really managed to get things done,’’ said Michael Corgan, history professor at Boston University. “He’ll be remembered as the foremost senator of his day.’’

Much of the world, however, is only starting to catch up to Kennedy’s legislative accomplishments, having long ago closed their memory bank on him.

There are still tens of millions of detractors who tuned him out in the ’80s, when, as a symbol of liberal excess who was unable to control his appetites, he seemed to belong to the past.

There are, as well, an equal number of admirers who remember him from an even more distant past, as the young man standing up in the face of unspeakable grief, having lost a second brother to an assassin’s bullet.

“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,’’ the 36-year-old senator declared, “but 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.’’

Many may never be able to separate him from his brothers, believing him to be either an undeserving heir or a noble keeper of the flame. And for them, his death will close the book on a long-running saga that cut a major swath through American political life.

“Most people will remember him best for his brothers, for picking up the Kennedy flag, and for a series of truly unforgettable speeches,’’ said Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “But history will likely remember him best for his legislative accomplishments and his ability to build bipartisan support to translate ambitious ideas into lasting law.’’

In fact, Ted Kennedy was always more consistent than his brothers, a pure liberal who believed in the government’s obligation to help the less fortunate. While Jack Kennedy ran for president as a centrist, and Bobby followed a zigzag path from the anticommunist right to the antiwar left, Ted was always a fixed point on the political map.

While most of his colleagues’ eyes would glaze over at the details of a spending bill, Kennedy could easily recite the difference between a formula that gave benefits to families up to 30 percent above the poverty level and one that gave benefits to those 40 percent above. He could say just how many families were in that extra sliver and envision the human beings behind the statistics.

Ironically, the lasting scar on his record will be an incident in which he appeared to show insufficient concern for the life of a woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who died while riding in his car on Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy didn’t report the accident for more than nine hours.

“I think he finally put Chappaquiddick behind him not so much by doing penance but through public service,’’ said Corgan.

That assessment won’t be universally accepted. There are many who will not forgive Kennedy for Chappaquiddick, just as there were many who instantly forgave him out of respect for his family. This was his fate. Memories of deaths - of Jack’s, Bobby’s, Mary Jo Kopechne’s - shadowed him wherever he went.

He found an escape in good works. And it is for those many deeds that he will be deeply and honestly mourned.