x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The last of America's band of brothers

Youngest of the Kennedy sons, he took on the mantle, yet scandal was to end any presidential hope. Known as the Lion of the Senate, his was the most powerful voice in Democratic politics.

The Kennedy brothers, from left, John, Robert and Edward.
The Kennedy brothers, from left, John, Robert and Edward.

The youngest of the charismatic Kennedy brothers, Edward Moore Kennedy, was the only one to grow old, escaping the curse of early death that haunts the quasi-mythic clan. Though he never made president he was a formidable Democratic politician, introducing key legislation that helped shape American society. He earned the epithet "the Lion of the Senate" for his longevity - he served 46 years - and his passionate pursuit of causes close to his heart, chief of which was health care. "What we have in the United States is not so much a healthcare system as a disease-care system," he said in 1994. It came of little surprise that Barack Obama, whose nomination Kennedy endorsed at a pivotal moment in the presidential campaign of 2008, ran on the healthcare ticket. Many saw the senator's endorsement as the passing of the torch.

Kicked out of Harvard in 1951 for cheating in a Spanish exam, Kennedy enrolled a second time after a hiatus of two years spent serving in the army at Nato headquarters in Paris. After graduation, he studied at the University of Virginia School of Law and in 1959, was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. That same year he married Virginia Joan Bennett. He made his first run for Senate in 1962 as soon as he was legally allowed (on turning 30), taking his brother John's seat when the latter became president. An unequivocal critic of America's war in Vietnam, he opposed all subsequent conflicts in which American forces were engaged, especially the war in Iraq. Though critical of the Senate's abdication of a decisive role in the question of whether to pursue the war, nonetheless, he appealed to the Pentagon to improve armoured vehicles in the hope of reducing military casualties.

As his brothers before him, Kennedy's personal life was dogged with scandalous rumours: tales of his womanising, drinking and general recklessness abounded. But one particular incident made headlines, undeniably altering the trajectory of his political career. In July 1969, Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile into the water off Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, drowning his companion in the vehicle, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. He did not report the accident for nine hours, by which time the press had got hold of the story and run with it.

Before Chappaquiddick, the young members of the Kennedy family were almost untouchable; after it, their lives, and deaths, became rich material for the press, keen to explore what really went on behind the gilded façade projected by one of America's wealthiest and most privileged families. When, as had been expected, Kennedy did make a run for the presidency in 1980, mounting a challenge to Jimmy Carter, the sitting president of his own party, his campaign never got off the ground. The American public, it seemed, had not forgotten Chappaquiddick. Nor, perhaps, did Kennedy exercise quite the allure of his older brothers. His magnetism was undeniable, but his powers were better suited to the Senate.

To the American public, he was a spokesman for the liberal movement; inside the Senate, he was a practised coalition builder, his skills illustrated most notably in his high-profile alliance with George W Bush on the No Child Left Behind education bill in 2001. Diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in May 2008, his stirring appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in support of Barack Obama was proof that the lion still roared.

Edward Moore Kennedy was born on February 22, 1932, and died on August 26. He is survived by his second wife, Victoria Reggie, whom he married in 1992, and the three children of his first marriage which was dissolved in 1982. * The National