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
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
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
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.