x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

America loses its liberal lion

Stalked by tragedy and controversy, Edward Kennedy never realised his presidential ambitions but still forged a reputation as one of his country's greatest legislators.

Edward Kennedy at the White House in 1962, flanked by his brothers Robert and John.
Edward Kennedy at the White House in 1962, flanked by his brothers Robert and John.

Edward M Kennedy, one of the most influential legislators in US history and the patriarch of America's most famous political family, died late on Tuesday in the state of Massachusetts after battling a brain tumour. He was 77. "We've lost the irreplaceable centre of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," his family said in a statement issued yesterday.

"An important chapter in our history has come to an end," President Barack Obama also declared. "Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time." Indeed, Kennedy's life was marked by soaring achievement. "To be truly human," he once said, "is to shape your own world." And with his big, deep chest stuck out like the prow of a ship, he did shape the world, far more than most people dream of.

In a senatorial career that spanned nearly half a century, Kennedy played a major role in passing laws that peeled open the doors of American government and changed the nation's political landscape. He was an unstinting ally of blacks, American Indians, the poor, the sick, the aged, the mentally ill, starving refugees worldwide and immigrants. Yet his life also was characterised by inestimable grief. The youngest of nine children in a well-to-do family of high achievers, he assumed the mantle of patriarch only by default.

His oldest brother, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, was killed when Edward - Ted as he was known more familiarly - was 12. His sister Rosemary was lobotomised when he was nine and institutionalised for the rest of her life when he was 16. The same year, his sister Kathleen was killed in a plane crash. John, the 35th president of the US, was assassinated when he was 31. Robert was murdered on the presidential campaign trail when he was 36.

Joseph P Kennedy, a prominent businessman and one-time US ambassador to Britain, drove Teddy and his other eight children hard, keen that they overcome the social ostracism that he and other Irish Catholics experienced in Boston society. "If there's a piece of cake on the plate, take it. Eat it," the elder Kennedy exhorted his family. For Teddy Kennedy, that produced a string of achievements by his older siblings and created gargantuan shoes to fill. But he never realised his own ambition to follow his brother to the White House. In 1969, he drove his car off a bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick at night. A female aide accompanying the married Kennedy in the car was killed. Her death and his conduct ruined his chances of ever becoming president.

His legendary bouts of drinking and womanising scuttled groundswells of support for a run at the presidency in the 1980s and 1990s. So did an electorate that grew weary of the liberalism and government activism that Kennedy championed unapologetically and a media culture that no longer treated the peccadilloes of politicians and celebrities - including those of his older, dead brothers - with deferential silence.

Yet even in his final days, as his health declined following the diagnosis last year of a fast-spreading, malignant brain tumour, he continued in his role as a legislative titan and tribune of the underprivileged, working the phones from his home in Hyannis Port to rally support for what he called his "life's cause": healthcare reform. Born on February 22, 1932, in Brookline, Massachusetts, Edward Moore Kennedy was steeped in politics from infancy. Both his father and his mother, the late Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, came from prominent Irish-Catholic families with long involvements in Democratic Party politics in Boston.

Kennedy attended Harvard University, where he was expelled for cheating, though he eventually returned to earn a degree in 1956. He went on to law school at the University of Virginia, but eventually took up the family trade: politics. He helped manage his brother John's successful 1960 presidential run. Charged with overseeing the campaign in 13 western states, he delivered all but three. Still, Kennedy, perhaps a symptom of being the youngest, was viewed as the playboy of the family, the brother who lived mostly off the perks of the family name. Few expected him to achieve the success of John, or Robert, who was appointed attorney general shortly after the inauguration.

Kennedy won a special election in 1962 to fill his brother's vacant Massachusetts Senate seat. Less than a year into his term, John was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Edward was sent to Hyannis Port to break the news to his father, who had been disabled by a stroke. Then, at the national funeral in Washington, watched by millions, he strode solemnly behind his brother's veiled widow and stood stone-faced as his nephew, John F Kennedy Jr, famously saluted the coffin.

In Kennedy's life, tragedy seemed to be around every turn. In 1964, he suffered three fractured vertebrae and a collapsed lung in an plane crash, while his aide and pilot were killed. It took months of painful rehabilitation to heal. Despite being confined to a hospital bed, Kennedy won re-election, a victory largely attributed to his wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy, who filled in for him on the campaign trail.

In 1968, Robert, now a senator representing New York, decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy, who had urged his brother not to run, partly out of fear for his safety, eventually threw himself into the campaign, working tirelessly on his brother's behalf. Then tragedy struck again. Robert was shot dead at a Los Angeles hotel. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was born in Jerusalem, the son of Palestinian Christian parents, and he opposed Robert's support for Israel in the Six-Day War the previous year.

At times choking back tears, the last remaining Kennedy brother gave a eulogy for Robert at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. His remarks, which aired on national television, were widely regarded as the moment that the youngest Kennedy arrived as head of America's most prominent political dynasty. "My brother need not be idealised, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," Kennedy said after nearly coming undone at the pulpit. He is "to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it".

Kennedy rebuffed calls to run in his brother's place and returned to the Senate. In 1969, he was elected majority whip, the second highest position in the 100-seat chamber. Many considered the upstart senator an early front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination three years later. But those prospects would soon come crashing down on a summer night in July of that year. The Chappaquiddick incident loomed large when Kennedy finally sought the presidency, challenging the highly unpopular incumbent, Jimmy Carter, in the 1980 Democratic primary. He did not discourage comparisons to his revered older brothers, but it did not help. He suffered a string of primary losses to Mr Carter, whose campaign periodically invoked Chappaquiddick.

Though Kennedy battled all the way to the convention, he suffered from predictions that his chances for victory in the general election were slight. By 1980, "Kennedy liberals" had become for American conservatives and right-wingers an epithet embodying all they believed was wrong about America. Yet in a concession speech to the Democratic Party convention that many still regard as one of the most eloquent declarations of liberal convictions in recent American political history, Kennedy was unbowed.

After reciting the plight of the unemployed, the elderly and the working poor whom he had encountered during his campaign, he declared his - and his party's - undying commitment to relieve their plight. "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," he said. Kennedy would never again seek the White House. While his home life sunk into turmoil - he divorced his wife Joan, who has battled bouts of alcoholism - his career as a legislator in the 1980s, particularly after the Democrats took back a majority in 1986, mark a period in which Kennedy began to earn his nickname, "the liberal lion of the Senate".

Kennedy fought to strengthen civil rights legislation and improve the US school system. His efforts to fix the healthcare system were propelled partly by his son, Ted Jr, whose cancer led to the amputation of his leg, and his daughter, Kara, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003. Kennedy's personal life was frequently a press secretary's nightmare. But it improved in 1992 when he married Victoria Reggie, a Washington lawyer 20 years his junior. She is often credited with helping the senator get some control over his private life, restore his public image and overcome long odds to win re-election to the Senate in 1994.

In the 1990s, a rejuvenated Kennedy continued to push legislation on issues dear to him. With the help of what was long regarded as one of Capitol Hill's best staffs - the Kennedy name always proved magic in drawing skilled, ambitious young people - Kennedy's office wrote about 2,500 bills and more than 300 have become law, according to the Boston Globe. In addition, more than 550 bills that Kennedy co-sponsored since 1973 - the first year Senate records listed co-sponsors - were enacted into law. All told, he was one of the most successful legislators in US history, the Globe said.

Despite his diagnosis of brain cancer in May last year, Kennedy pressed on with his senatorial duties. He made another dramatic appearance at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, surprising the audience with a speech reminiscent of his 1980 convention speech. "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans," he said. "The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."

cnelson@thenational.ae sstanek@thenational.ae