In many ways, Ted Kennedy was the most consequential of all the Kennedy brothers. His older brother Jack was president, of course, and his older brother Bobby was Attorney General, and perhaps would have been president had he not been assassinated. And both men have been far more celebrated through the years since their deaths. Jack’s death was lamented as the cutting short of a life that could have been great; Bobby’s is part of the low point of the 1960s, the 1968 spring and summer that cost the lives of both he and Martin Luther King, Jr., a year that ended with the election of a man who was morally unsuited to be president.
Ted Kennedy was in the Senate in 1963 when Jack was shot and killed in Texas. He had been there for a year, having won the seat his brother left in a 1962 special election. He would serve there for 47 years, building a political legacy that, in the end, outshone what his brothers had accomplished.
Kennedy was a driving force behind repeated hikes in minimum wage, creating the S-CHIP program (which provides health insurance for children), the existence of Title IX, and the preservation of the Voting Rights Act during the Reagan administration. Kennedy was instrumental in preventing Robert Bork’s confirmation, an act that literally saved Roe v. Wade. He was a strong anti-Apartheid activist, defying South Africa’s racist government by staying with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on a 1985 trip. He also worked with the Reagan administration as an envoy to the Soviet Union, negotiating for arms reductions with Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. In recent years he led the effort to liberalize immigration laws. And when health insurance reform is passed — and it will be passed — it will because of the hard work Kennedy has put into its creation.
Kennedy also played an outsized role in presidential politics, despite only seeking the office once, in 1980. Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter arguably fatally wounded Carter’s political career, but it also set in motion the realignment of both Democrats and Republicans in the South. And it’s arguable that the man who holds the office today is there because of a well-timed endorsement from Kennedy during last year’s primary; Barack Obama gained badly needed momentum going into Super Tuesday thanks to the Kennedy blessing. Given the whisker-thin margin he won by, it’s hard to imagine that Obama could have won had Kennedy even merely stayed neutral.
Kennedy was not perfect, of course. He battled alcohol addiction, and was for many years a serial womanizer, known for carousing in Washington with Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. Kennedy’s personal history, and the history of Kennedy womanizing and infidelity, kept Kennedy from coming out strongly against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings.
But Kennedy appeared to have beaten those demons in his later life. He was married to his last wife, Vicki, in 1992, and by all accounts, she was a positive, stabilizing force in his life. By the time he fell ill last summer with a brain tumor, the paparazi had long stopped following Kennedy around; he’d become too boring in his old age.
People will view Kennedy’s passing at 77 as a tragedy, but Ted knew what tragedy was. He died an old man, at home with his family. He alone among the Kennedy brothers avoided a violent death (the eldest Kennedy brother, Joe Jr., died in World War II). Kennedy’s death is not a tragedy, just a part of life. It is sad only that he could not have lived another year, to see his hard work on health care come to fruition.
Kennedy was always a passionate defender of progressive ideals, and through almost five decades in public service he was a powerful voice in favor of equality, justice, and economic assistance. Few men or women in American history have had such a consequential political career. It is a grand legacy, and as an American, I’m grateful for it.