Who was Ted Kennedy?

Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy (February 22, 1932 – August 25, 2009)


1. How important for US politics was Senator Edward Kennedy?

2. He was Kennedy so for many people he was predestined to be successful. But it not always easy to bear the famous name. Was it easy for him?


James Boys, Assistant Professor of International Political Studies Richmond, the American International University in London

1. Senator Kennedy was a giant in American politics. In an age of political pygmies, Kennedy was the Lion of the Senate, a figure of immense political, cultural, social and historical importance. As the last surviving brother of President John F. Kennedy, he was a touchstone to an age that is rapidly slipping from memory to history, as the last remnants of that golden age pass from the scene.

As an enduring symbol of his brother’s time in the White House, Senator Kennedy was important for his symbolism, but he was also important in his own right. He served in the United States Senate since 1962 and has been a leading advocate of minority rights, healthcare coverage and for the disadvantaged all his life. His death marks a significant blow to President Obama’s hopes for Universal Healthcare in the United States and his ability to get the relevant legislation through a now depleted Democratically controlled Senate.

2. There are not many people whose lives would be considered a failure if they did not become President of the United States. This was the shadow under which Ted Kennedy lived his entire adult life. Son of an American Ambassador, brother to an assassinated president, brother also to an assassinated aspiring president, Ted Kennedy was always judged to some degree by his inability to regain the White House.

He had his chances; in 1968 he was asked to pick up the fallen mantel when his brother Robert was assassinated. He refused. Twelve months later, when Apollo 11 was carrying Armstrong to the moon in the fulfillment of JFK’s pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations ended with the accident at Chappaquiddick. From that point onwards, his career would be dogged by nagging doubts surrounding his actions that night and even when he eventually ran for the presidency 12 years later in 1980, it appeared to be a half-hearted effort.

The pressures of public expectation, of assuming the role of head of the dynasty following the murder of two older brothers was a weight that Kennedy struggled with his entire life. Ironically, he appeared happiest once the failed presidential bid was behind him and he could move on to becoming a party elder in the Senate, where he could champion causes that meant the most to him.

He leaves a legacy that may not be as bright or dramatic as his more famous brothers, but which may well have a greater impact upon the lives of ordinary American than anything that was achieved in the golden age of Camelot.

Jon Roper, Professor of American Studies, Swansea University

1. He was important for two reasons: what he represented and what he achieved. Within the Democrat party he was a powerful voice for the liberal values that underpinned the promise of his brother Jack’s “New Frontier” and which also found expression in his brother Robert’s campaign for the Presidency in 1968. Although he did not become President himself, during his long career in the Senate, he was able to build a solid record of achievement in areas of social, educational and welfare reform. His influence within the party and the country could be seen when he endorsed Barack Obama’s campaign for the White House: a crucial intervention that helped Obama win the nomination and the presidency.

2. His reputation fluctuated over the years: as a Kennedy, he lived his life in the glare of publicity. The Chappaquiddick affair is the most notorious example of the way in which celebrity and scandal impacted on his life. As he grew older, however, he took on the role of patriarch within the Kennedy family and gained respect for his political achievements as Senator for Massachusetts. He bore his final illness with dignity and calm: in the end, he was probably a man at peace with himself.

Steffen Schmidt, University Professor of Political Science Iowa State University

Sen Kennedy was ‘the Lion of the Senate” His presence overshadowed most other politicians even when the Democrats were the minority because Kennedy was an old fashioned Liberal Democrat who believed that the role of government is to be on the side of the people. He was of course the most visible proponent of health care reform in the United States government for many decades. As with most great and intense leaders he had passion for everything he did including overindulging in wine and spirits as well as beautiful young women sometimes with tragic consequences as in the drowning of a staffer after a party. I remember the story of a friend and former student of mine who lived and worked in Georgetown, of a very well lubricated (alcohol) Sen Kennedy doing it on a table in the private dining room of a very upscale Georgetown restaurant with one of the comely waitresses. We know that power is a great aphrodisiac and Kennedy was the Bill Clinton of his time. His misadventures may have added a certain “panache” or flamboyance to him in the way that Bill Clinton’s adventures also made him a rogue (in the good sense of that word).

As the elder surviving Kennedy he immersed himself in politics so deeply in part to balance the curse of the Kenned family – young people dying at early ages and under tragic circumstances; offspring getting into terrible legal fixes that were painfully public. He could have used his great influence to become rich (or even richer) and to promote commercial causes but most of his life was actually focused on the plight of the little guy.

I can also tell you from my 40 years of analysis that it was Kennedy’s support of Obama in Iowa that helped Obama win the Iowa caucuses and then move on to win the White House. Kennedy is still worshiped by many liberal and old-school Democrats as a leader who never wavered from his commitment to causes and these causes were as I’ve said usually for the common good of a large majority of people. While his conservative opponents reviled his policies they often respected him personally and his influence on then was unquestionable. His passing on leaves a huge hole in the Sen Democratic team and it is a severe blow to Obama’s healthcare reform that Kennedy was so ill and is now gone. He knew the subject and was passionate about it like NO ONE ELSE IN POLITICS.

Marty Linsky, Adjunct Lecturer at Harvard University, Owner, Cambridge Leadership Associates

Ted Kennedy represented liberal Democratic politics for almost half a century, but his failed insurgency campaign for the Presidency in 1980 was a profound turning point in his career. From then on, knowing that his career was going to be as a legislator not an executive, he committed to being effective as well as representing a point of view and, as a result, he collaborated with Republicans and demonstrated from both minority and majority roles in the Senate that a politician can get things done without losing core principles. To me, his legacy will be about what it means to be a good legislator which, not coincidentally, was a mantle neither of this brothers could wear. Kennedy was skillful at maximizing the value of his famous name, most recently in his timely support of the Obama candidacy, but he lived in a glass bubble. There was no place he could go anywhere in the globe without being mobbed.

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