For most of my sentient life, Teddy has been striving, partying, running, and representing the long tail of the Kennedy legacy. I remember Chappaquiddick (when I was 16) better than the moon landing—two events that coincided 40 years ago. I remember thinking, in spite of Chappaquiddick, that Teddy Kennedy was the last best hope for…well, I suppose the 1960s. I covered Teddy’s strangely chaotic and tongue-tied presidential run in 1980 for Life
magazine. I enjoyed a decade of nearly non-stop insider sex gossip about Teddy in the 1980s (everybody in politics and media had a story—many stories). From the gallery of the Clinton impeachment, in 1998, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the riveting spectacle of a massive—I mean barely-able-to-walk massive—Teddy Kennedy wobbling on the floor of the Senate chamber.
Still, after so long, I can’t say I have much of a clear sense of the man. I couldn’t tell you if he was stupid or smart. More a serious legislator or more an attention-deficit glamor boy. A man who shouldered heroic family burdens or one who added to the dysfunctions of a mythically dysfunctional family (he was in on, if not encouraging, the heavy drinking that proceeded his nephew William Kennedy Smith’s famous rape charge in Palm Beach, in 1991). A humanitarian or a sexual harasser.
Of course all of these disparate and contradictory identities add up to being a Kennedy. What are any of them, in the end, but overly entitled, not-so-stable people (not enough love in those big families) with the capacity for surprising eloquence.
Along the way, Teddy, more than his brothers or any of the younger generation that tried, none-too-successfully, to follow his footsteps into Congress, came to define the character of liberalism—to be, not necessarily to liberalism’s advantage, its poster boy. He helped define liberalism as more about the speech than the action, as heady and idealistic more than savvy and effective. Curiously, this was the opposite of what his hard-headed brothers stood for. As notably, in spite of his sometime soft-headedness, he worked harder than they did. He became, for all his attention deficit and hard partying and overweening rhetoric, a detail guy. A slogger. A humper. A grind.
But was it worth it?
For the people of Massachusetts, there were a lot of years of their senior senator not exactly being on the job. For Americans, Teddy helped perpetuate a myth—of how great it once was, and might have been—that probably should have been retired long ago. For him, it never seemed, at least not until his final years, that he was very happy.
In the end, we might only hope he won’t be remembered as the health care senator who never managed to pass a health care bill.
Few living people have been as famous for as long as