Profile: Edward Kennedy
WHEN he won the Democratic primary in Oregon last Tuesday, Barack Obama seemed to believe that he finally had his party's presidential nomination in the bag. But for many Americans that moment came four months earlier, when a bespectacled septuagenarian stood behind a podium emblazoned with the word 'Change'.
Partly because of his own astonishing 46 years on the frontline of US politics, and largely because of the name he bears and the tragedies associated with it, at 76 Ted Kennedy remains an icon of the Democratic Party. And when he declared: "I know what America can achieve. I've seen it. I've lived it. And with Barack Obama, we can do it again," it was the equivalent of royal approval for the Illinois senator.
Kennedy's endorsement mattered for the same reason that past candidates such as Bill Clinton and John Kerry have dug out footage of themselves in the presence of President John F Kennedy and spoken admiringly of the promise cut short by the assassination of Bobby. Ted is The Third Brother, the last link to Camelot.
Obama may be the last Democratic hopeful to be sprinkled with that Kennedy gold-dust, however. Tests following a seizure last week showed the Massachusetts senator has brain cancer. Having survived years of right-wing abuse, a plane crash and a car accident that killed a party worker and nearly destroyed his career, his nemesis today is a tumour.
Edward Moore Kennedy was born on February 22, 1932, the youngest of nine children and a member of one of America's richest families. His fiercely ambitious father, Joseph, dreamed of capturing the presidency himself but concluded America was not ready for a Catholic in the White House. Instead, having amassed a fortune through the stock market and commodity speculation – and selling booze during and after Prohibition – he set about creating a political dynasty.
When his eldest son, Joe Jr, died in the Second World War, the patriarch's hopes fell on Jack, with Bobby and Ted by his side. Legend has it that the Kennedy who did become president always thought Ted the most natural politician of the clan, and biographer Burton Hersch quotes a friend who said Jack went "weak with pleasure" at the sight of Ted pressing the flesh.
The youngest brother was just 26 and still a law student when he ran Jack's successful 1958 senate re-election campaign. When Jack then won the presidency in 1960 he wanted Ted to take over his Massachusetts seat. In a typically cute bit of family fixing, Kennedy loyalist Benjamin Smith kept the seat warm until Ted turned 30, when the law allowed him to take over in a special election in 1962. He would be re-elected in 1964 and then again every six years to 2006.
Even Ted Kennedy's political opponents admit that in that time he has been an effective legislator. In 2006 Time magazine named Kennedy one of the nation's top 10 senators, saying he had "amassed a titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country". After they worked together on an education bill, George W Bush said: "The folks at the Crawford Coffee Shop would be somewhat in shock when I told them I actually liked the fella. He's a fabulous United States senator."
Kennedy is a liberal. In Britain this would mark him out as holding the middle ground, someone rivals on the left and right only occasionally look down on as they lob insults over his head at one another. In America, it makes him a hate figure for the right. Before he fell ill, the quaintly-named liberalscum.com labelled Kennedy a "murderer and communist", and concluded: "Until Ted Kennedy is dead, America as we know it is not safe. Let us all pray for that wonderful day."
This vitriol is driven by Kennedy's stance on issues from immigration to gun control and same-sex partnerships, together with opposition to the Iraq war. After starting out being anti-abortion, he also became pro-choice on the matter, which put him at odds with fellow Catholics. And Kennedy's critics have never had to look far for mud to throw at him: he was expelled from Harvard for cheating in a Spanish exam; when Joe Sr intervened, his time in the army was halved to two years and he served safely in Paris rather than Korea.
But the "murderer" slur results from the most notorious incident in Kennedy's life, Chappaquiddick. Democratic worker Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, was a passenger in Kennedy's car when it went off a bridge between Chappaquiddick Island and Martha's Vineyard in July 1969. Kennedy – who had previously been cited for reckless driving – escaped but did not call the authorities until the next day. Amid vague claims that he thought Kopechne had also got out of the car, he pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and accepted a suspended sentence of two months in jail.
This incident had profound political and personal ramifications. The shame dissuaded Kennedy from entering the running for the White House in 1972 and 1976, even though post-Watergate America would have voted for a chipmunk rather than a Republican. Enter Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was such a disaster that Kennedy roused himself for battle in 1980, only to lose while holing the incumbent, helping Ronald Reagan into office.
Kennedy's first wife, Joan, also blamed Chappaquiddick for turning her into an alcoholic. After the pair divorced in 1982 she admitted that she had never been comfortable around the Kennedys' pearly-white smiles and famously robust football games. "I tried to be like the Kennedys, bouncy and running all over," she said. "But I could never be that."
Kennedy's second marriage, to Vicki, a Washington lawyer and co-founder of a gun safety group, has been more successful. It has also shown his romantic side. After meeting her at a party in 1991, he bombarded Vicki with hundreds of bouquets of flowers. When they married a year later, he painted her daffodils as a tribute to their shared love of William Wordsworth.
Kennedy has three long-grown children by his first marriage, while Vicki has two. He also became a surrogate father to Jack and Bobby's 13 children. America has long scoured this progeny for signs of a new Kennedy torch-bearer. It has found each wanting, while others have fallen to the 'Kennedy Curse', such as John F Kennedy Jr, who died in a 1999 plane crash.
Last week the New York Daily News reported that Kennedy himself was looking closer to home for a successor, having told friends that Vicki should take over his Senate seat, which has been a family fiefdom for generations. It seems that even as he faces a terminal illness, Ted is determined to have a say in US politics – and keep the Kennedy name alive.
You've been Googled
• Like Jack Kennedy, Ted suffers from chronic back pain after a 1964 plane crash in which the pilot and an aide were killed. His own injuries included three crushed vertebrae, a punctured lung and broken ribs.
• Kennedy's main home is the family's famous summer residence at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, which was Jack Kennedy's retreat from the pressures of the White House.
• In October 1971, Kennedy called for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.
• Kennedy won 10 presidential primaries against Carter, who won 24, before bowing out.
• "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government." Kennedy's condemnation helped block Reagan's supreme court nominee in 1987.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
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