Ted Kennedy, liberal lion of US politics

Senator Edward Kennedy, who died on Tuesday aged 77, was the liberal lion of United States politics, a towering, controversial figure whose death ends an era when his family appeared born to rule.

Kennedy in many ways epitomised the wealthy, Ivy League-educated elite of the US, a status detractors said enabled him to dodge fallout from scandals in his personal life.

Yet he also suffered extraordinary tragedy and what some came to call the curse of the Kennedy’s, with the assassinations of older brother president John F Kennedy in November 1963 and another elder sibling, the senator and former attorney general Robert Kennedy, in June 1968.

By the end of his life, following nearly five decades as a Democratic senator, Kennedy had won huge admiration for his dedication and his defiance of the brain cancer that ultimately killed him.

Edward Moore Kennedy, best known as Ted Kennedy, was born February 22 1932, into the strongly Roman Catholic, Irish-American clan headed by banker Joseph Kennedy and his wife, Rose.

The youngest of nine children, Kennedy attended Harvard University. He was expelled for cheating in an exam, but returned to earn both a degree and fame for his American football skills.

Told by the head coach of the Green Bay Packers that he might have a future as a professional football player, Kennedy quipped that he would instead enter law school then play “another contact sport: politics.”

He did just that. Pushed by an ambitious father, he was 30 when he won the Senate seat in strongly liberal Massachusetts earlier vacated by his borther John on election as president in 1960.

But the Kennedy brothers’ golden age collapsed into a seemingly endless spiral of bad luck and tragedy.

In 1964, the year after John F Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, Ted Kennedy narrowly escaped death in a plane crash that killed an aide and the pilot.

Then in 1968, his brother Robert was murdered just as he was gaining momentum in a presidential bid.

This left Ted Kennedy the figurehead of US liberalism and, many thought, an extraordinary candidate for the White House.

But those dreams disintegrated the following year, 1969, when Kennedy accidentally drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts, killing a female companion, Mary Jo Kopechne.

The scandal deepened when it emerged that Kennedy had swum to safety from the car, leaving Kopechne behind, then waited until the following day to report the incident.

The young senator got away with a two-month suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident and he won easy re-election to the Senate.

But the incident tarnished his image.
He repeatedly put off running for the presidency, then lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.

Chappaquiddick was not the last embarrassing episode to dog Kennedy, lampooned in the tabloids as a boozing skirt-chaser.

Episodes included being allegedly caught in flagrante delicto with a waitress on the floor of a Washington restaurant and cruising the halls of the Capitol with another senator looking for young female pages.

He also went through difficult times at home, where the family was coping with the amputation of a 12-year-old son’s cancerous leg, and he and his wife Joan ended their 22-year marriage.

In 1991 Kennedy’s career teetered on the edge of oblivion after his nephew William Smith was charged with raping a woman at the end of a night out with the senator. Smith was acquitted, but the media frenzy damaged Kennedy.

He issued a public mea culpa about “faults in the conduct of my private life” and the following year remarried, rebuilt his career, and cruised to reelection in 1994.

Ted Kennedy earned a reputation as the country’s liberal lion, aggressively pushing for legislation on causes such as immigration, voter rights and gun control.

During George Bush’s tumultuous presidency, Kennedy emerged as a senior opponent to the invasion of Iraq. He accused Bush of exaggerating the threats posed by Saddam Hussein and compared Bush’s policies to Richard Nixon’s war in Vietnam.

Kennedy again surged to the forefront of US politics in his family’s crucial support during the 2008 presidential election for Barack Obama, a figure that some saw as a modern version of John F Kennedy.

“The outpouring of love, gratitude and fond memories which we have all witnessed is a testimony to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives,” Obama said on Wednesday.

Obama’s focus on healthcare reform gave Kennedy his last big political battle. Serving as chairperson of the Senate Health Education, Labour and Pension Committee, Kennedy called fixing the troubled healthcare system “the cause of my life”.

It was only Kennedy’s own failing health that slowed him in the end, after he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008. A US official confirmed on Wednesday that Kennedy would be buried at Arlington National Cemetery nears his brothers, John and Robert.

Kennedy is survived by his second wife, Victoria, and his three children: Kara, Edward Kennedy Junior, and Patrick, who is a member of the House of Representatives.—AFP

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