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Teddy
The passing of an American Legend

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
August 26, 2009

Fourth sons rarely become major achievers. Part of this is that they are pretty far down on the sibling pecking order and so aren't afforded much opportunity to become alpha males. Part of it is that by the fourth one, the parents aren't as ga-ga over the baby, so there's less attention, less snaps in the family album, less enthusiasm for each development stage as it comes along. It isn't bad parenting; it's just sort of tired parenting. “Number four said his first word today.” “That's nice. Did he happen to mention if the Cubs won?”

But the Kennedys are kind of a rule unto themselves. Joe was the eldest, and, this being one of the richest and most powerful families in the world, it was assumed that he would rise high in politics when he became an adult. But this was an era when wealthy families didn't feel entitled to keep their kids safe from war at the expense of others, and kids from the big rich families, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, even the Bushes sent their kids off to war. Joe didn't come back. John, the second oldest, nearly didn't either. But he did, with a bad back and the types of experiences that either build a man or destroy him, and he wasn't destroyed. He took over as number one son, and his two younger brothers each moved up a notch. People probably rattled off the names of the sons this way: “Well, there was Joe Junior. Now there's John, and then Bobby, and then, um, just a moment, it will come to me...”

John rose high, became Senator, then president. He brought Bobby into the family business, made him Attorney General. Teddy was expected to run for Congress one day.

Two years later, he ran for John's old seat, and to nobody's surprise, won. After all, it was Massachusetts, papa Joe had swung the family name and fortune behind him, and he was one of the Kennedy brothers, even if he was the one who came along as a sort of afterthought. It was widely suspected that he was a Senatorial remittance man; the generally worthless offspring who is given a sinecure to keep him out of the parental hair and hopefully out of jail. American politics have an undue number of useless scions from wealthy families. Usually the country does not benefit from this for much the same reason that the monarchy, back when it had extreme power, didn't benefit England. The inbreeding makes the DNA unravel, you know. There are books. You can read them.

Then John was assassinated. All eyes turned to Robert, and a lot of people thought that if he announced he would restore Camelot, he could beat the redoubtable LBJ in a floor fight and become President in 1964. He wisely chose not to take a course guaranteed to split the party, and waited.

At that point, Edward finally did something to get himself noticed as something other than as “another Kennedy.” He got in a plane crash and broke his back. For the first time, he was someone other than the vaguely familiar face in the second row, and people realized that now Edward was the “second son,” the one remaining backstop in the event that something should happen to Bobby. The plane crash finally made him a first-tier Kennedy. For anyone considering a career in politics, I don't recommend getting in a plane crash and breaking your back. It was kind of a unique set of circumstances.

Then came the awful year of 1968. In the middle of it came a Kennedy voice, strong, powerful, resolute, passionate and filled with conviction. Teddy's eulogy at Bobby Kennedy's funeral is considered one of the great speeches in American history, unique in that it was given by a politician who wasn't trying to be a politician, and not talking about politics.

Teddy, everyone figured, was a shoo-in for president in 1972. Assuming, of course, that he didn't get shot.

Political wounds don't always come from guns. The next year, Kennedy blew away any hopes of becoming President any time soon by driving his car off that little bridge at Chappaquiddick. Mary Jo Kopechne drowned, and with her, seemingly, Kennedy's political future. We'll never know why Kennedy ran away from the accident like he did, or why he took ten hours to call it in. Some people say he was concussed and panicked and exercised poor judgment. Others say he was drunk and had reasons not to let the world know that particular secretary was in his car at that time.

His presidential aspirations were in shambles, and the only way he was going to convince the voters to let him keep his Senate seat in the next election was by being the best Senator possible.

He chose to become the best Senator possible, and it was this decision that both make him the man he became, and helped ensure that American history in the 40 years since wasn't a lot worse than it actually was. I don't know if the tragedy at Chappaquiddick made him resolve to be a better person, but it was surely a tempering experience.

Oddly enough, it helped him politically. The lunatic fringe right didn't control the Republican party and the media like they do today, but they could be plenty noisy, and Chappaquiddick gave them something to be noisy about. They screamed ever more lurid conspiracy theories and hissed and yelled till the spittle ran down their cheeks, over-acting and howling the same things over and over. The public took this in, at first seriously, and then with amused contempt. When you are facing individuals who greet news of napalm burning children in Vietnam and black children in America dying for want of dental care with a truculent “So what,” it's hard to take them seriously when they start wailing and breast-beating over a secretary they never met. Mary Jo Kopechne was ill-served by the people who loudly swore to avenge her death.

Kennedy already had his first major legislative triumph in 1965, when he got the Immigration Act through. For a second-year senator this was a stunning accomplishment, and even if the rest of the world was still seeing him as “the other Kennedy,” in the Senate he was getting some serious respect. After Chappaquiddick, he focused on what would be the two driving forces that underlay all his political actions: education, and universal health care.

In 1972, against tall odds, he managed to get Title IX through the Senate. This was as important for the rights of women as the 19^th amendment. It made “the other Kennedy” into “The Lion of the Senate,” amazing for a man still in his mid 40s.

In 1980 he ran for president, despite the fact that the incumbent, a member of his own party, was running for reelection. Through a grueling set of primaries, he took the fight all the way to the convention, showing both his tenacity and Carter's weakness. I gloomily (and correctly) surmised that this probably had cost Carter reelection, even though the GOP had managed to come up with a complete jackass as their candidate.

So when I watched what was supposed to be a simple concession speech on the third night of the convention, I wasn't kindly disposed toward Kennedy, and very nearly gave his speech a miss. I wasn't interested in hearing a bunch of rationalizations and half hearted apologies.

A little over 12 years earlier, I was in the crowd on the rope line, and Bobby Kennedy stuck his hand out in front of me. I nearly snubbed him. I had been a “Get Clean for Gene” man, and after McCarthy knocked LBJ off his perch, and Kennedy suddenly announced, I considered Bobby an interloper, a conniving Johnny come lately—so to speak. On the other hand, this was the next President of the United States standing in front of me with a disarming grin. He didn't have to shake my hand—it was obvious I was too young to vote. So I shook his hand. I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn't, because two days later he was dead.

I feel the same way about watching the Great Kennedy Speech of 1980. It was an important moment in American history, one of the greatest speeches, if not the greatest, in American history. If you've never heard it, you owe it to yourself to Google for it and give it a listen. It still retains all the power, the passion, the hope, and the love of America that it did 29 years ago. In 1980, most towns only had a couple of TV channels, there was no cable, and speeches weren't replayed. If I had missed it, the best I could hope for would be a few minutes excerpt on the nightly news, and a recap in the local paper.

Obama may some day match Kennedy's oratory. But he can never surpass it.

It was then that the public knew what the Senate had already learned. He was the Lion, the last great liberal voice on the American political landscape, a beacon in the darkness of the Reagan years and what followed. He was America's strongest link to its past, born in the liberal fires of the Enlightenment, and suffused with the idealism and love of the people that the Founders brought.

He's gone now, but he lived long enough to see the light that brought an end to thirty years of Republican dark ages.

He found his job in 1969, and he did it.

Magnificently.

Posted: August 27, 2009

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