Ted Kennedy dies: Chappaquiddick was the fatal flaw that haunted Kennedy's career

For more than 40 years, Edward Kennedy was the keeper of the flame, the last of a dynasty of Kennedy brothers who enjoyed an almost mystical status in the American political scene.
Four decades after assassins bullets claimed two of his elder brothers, 77-year-old Edward Moore Kennedy, the patriarch of what many still regard as America’s first family, has died.

The senior senator from Massachusetts is one of only six men in American history to have served 40 years in the upper house of the US legislature. Over his career he has won the respect of friend and foe alike for his uncompromising liberal views, coupled with his willingness to reach across the aisle to cut deals with political foes like President George W. Bush.

The first president Bush even gave him an award for public service in 2003, saying: “There were times when we were at each other’s political throats, but at the end of the day, we are Americans who love our country and want the very best for it.”

But there was a darker side. It was not just that the images of the three Kennedy brothers together in the 1960s, from a glamorous golden age when America was more confident of its greatness, morphed into pictures of the stolid, white-haired heavyweight (in all senses) that he became.

His senate career, in which he rose to be majority whip and chairman of the judiciary committee, has been partly an act of redemption, an attempt to ensure that when his obituaries are written, his name is not primarily associated with the word “Chappaquiddick”.

It was there, in the millionaires’ playground off Cape Cod, near the Kennedy family compound where Mr Kennedy was taken ill yesterday , that the 37-year-old drove his car off a bridge after a late night part in July 1969. His companion Mary Jo Kopechne drowned, critics have always maintained, because Mr Kennedy panicked and left her in the sinking car. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two year suspended sentence.

Nor was it the first sign of fecklessness. “Ted”, the youngest of the nine Kennedy children, was expelled from Harvard University in 1951 for cheating in a Spanish exam.

That did not prevent his election in 1962 to the seat in the Senate vacated by his brother, John, when he became president - which had been kept warm by a family friend until Ted reached the minimum age of 30 required by senate rules.

But Chappaquiddick stalked his life, almost certainly deterring him from running for president in either 1972 or 1976, the latter of which was probably his best chance to win.

His run for White House in 1980 was marred not only by a revival of questions about his behaviour at Chappaquiddick but also by his failure to fully explain why he wanted the job.

There was more than a sense that he felt his status as a Kennedy was qualification enough for the office that his brother Jack had held and his brother Bobby seemed on the cusp of attaining when he was gunned down in 1968.

The shadow of John and Bobby was long. “I think about my brothers every day,” he admitted. Another quotation revealed even more: “I don’t mind not being president, I just mind that someone else is.”

That 1980 campaign had parallels with the current contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Mr Kennedy’s battle with sitting president Jimmy Carter was just as bitter and even more prolonged.

It was Mr Kennedy who played the Hillary Clinton role, fighting on with dwindling hopes even when all seemed lost, all the way to the Democratic convention. Perhaps it was that experience which persuaded him to endorse Obama this year.

But perhaps, too, he saw something of himself in the candidate who has made oratory fashionable again. Mr Kennedy may have lost in 1980 but he gave, at the convention, a speech which is hailed to this day as one of the most powerful in recent US political history.

His peroration concluded with the line: “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

The dream may not be dead, and the Kennedy family still enjoys a unique place in American public life. But the time for someone else to carry the flame has arrived.


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