Edward “Ted” Kennedy was the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, where he served from 1962 until his death. He was the youngest child and last surviving son of the late Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy, and the brother of the late Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., who was killed in action during World War II; and President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963 and 1968, respectively. A proud and vocal liberal, he was known as the Lion of the Senate, both for his tenure and his remarkable effectiveness as a lawmaker; more than 300 laws bear his name.
Kennedy was born in Boston on February 22, 1932, into a prominent and wealthy family. His maternal grandfather was John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who had been a U.S. congressman and mayor of Boston; his mother, Rose, was one of the most eligible young women in the city. His father, Joseph, had been president of a successful bank, the first director of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the ambassador to the Court of St. James.
Kennedy attended Harvard College, as did his brothers, but was dismissed after a cheating scandal. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1951 and was honorably discharged with the rank of private first class in 1953. Kennedy reentered Harvard that same year, graduating with an A.B. in history and government in 1956. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1959.
In 1960, Kennedy received his baptism by fire when he acted as the manager of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in the Western states. The Senate seat held by JFK became available, but Ted Kennedy did not meet the minimum age requirement as set by the Constitution. A family friend was appointed to the seat, which Ted Kennedy won during a special election in 1962.
Kennedy maintained a low profile during his first year in the Senate, and was fulfilling his duty of presiding over the Senate on November 22, 1963, when an aide told him the president had been shot. A short time later, he learned from then attorney general Robert Kennedy that the president had died. The task of telling his father, who had been paralyzed and left speechless by a stroke, fell to Ted Kennedy and his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The next year, Kennedy was seriously injured in a plane crash that killed the pilot and an aide to Kennedy, Edward Moss. Kennedy was badly injured—his back injury pained him the rest of his life—and spent months recuperating in a hospital. His wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy, campaigned on his behalf, and he won the Senate seat in the regularly scheduled election that autumn by a three-to-one margin.
Upon his return to the Senate, Kennedy blossomed. It was at this time that he began earning his reputation as a legislative leader. He involved himself in causes that affected marginalized groups in society: voting rights and immigration reform, the plight of refugees and what he perceived to be an unfair military draft system that allowed middle-class and wealthy young white men to duck the draft via the use of college deferments. He was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, but after visiting the country in January 1968, he had the temerity to suggest that the United States get out of the war.
When his brother Robert, then the junior senator from New York, decided to run for president in 1968, Kennedy advised against it. However, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Ted was in San Francisco working on behalf of his brother. He delivered a spare and elegant eulogy at the funeral and became a surrogate father to his brother's 11 children—the youngest of whom was born six months after the assassination.
Even as Robert Kennedy lay dying, entreaties were being made to Ted to get him to enter the presidential race. But in 1969, Kennedy drove off Dike Bridge into the Poucha Pond inlet; his female passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Kennedy claimed to have made a number of tries to rescue Kopechne, but when he could not, he left the scene, failing to report the accident to the authorities until the next day. Kennedy denied that he was driving under the influence of alcohol, or that he had any romantic involvement with Kopechne. The accident, however, effectively closed the door on his presidential ambitions for almost a decade.
Kennedy did run for the presidency in 1980, challenging the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. The campaign was a disaster; Kennedy could not clearly articulate his reasons for running, his staff was disorganized, and questions about the death of Kopechne surfaced with a vengeance. Carter handily defeated Kennedy, but Kennedy gave one of his most stirring speeches ever when he conceded defeat at the convention.
By 1985, Kennedy decided to publicly give up the pursuit of the presidency and thus entered some of his most successful and effective years in Congress. Unfortunately, his personal life was in great disarray; he and his wife, Joan, an admitted alcoholic, divorced. He drank and caroused too much; the latter curtailed his effectiveness in the fight to block the nomination of Clarence Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court. However, in 1991, he met Victoria Reggie, the daughter of an old Kennedy family friend. They married in 1992 and Kennedy publicly acknowledged that her presence gave stability, love, and meaning to his life. His last years in the Senate were enormously gratifying as he continued to champion causes for the disadvantaged, the working and middle class, children, immigrants, and veterans. Kennedy even worked effectively with Republican president George W. Bush and collaborated with the Republican senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, who had become his great friend.
In May 2008, Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He elected to have surgery and undergo a grueling series of treatments and was unable to be present in the Senate for the better part of a year. He did, however, throw his considerable support behind the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama and was an honored guest at the inauguration and the luncheon that followed it.
Kennedy died on August 25, 2009, without seeing the passage of universal health care, a cause very dear to his heart. He was the only member of the Kennedy family to write his memoirs, True Compass, a copy of which arrived at his famous Hyannis Port home the day he died. In the aftermath of his death, his son, Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D-RI), announced that he would not stand for reelection and would look for other ways to promote social change. For the first time in more than 60 years, there would not be a Kennedy in Washington, D.C.
See also Kennedy, John F. (1917–1963); Kennedy, Robert F. (1925–1968).
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