The Ted Kennedy I Knew

The MSNBC host says a new biography reveals what made Kennedy the greatest US senator of modern times—and why he never dropped the torch.

02.17.09 6:06 AM ET

In June 1946, Jack Kennedy was approaching his first big political win. His father’s polls showed him with a commanding lead in the Democratic primary for Congress. Given the party’s big registration edge in Cambridge and other towns in the 11th District of Massachusetts, he had a November victory in the bag.

With electoral success imminent, members of the Kennedy family sat around the table in Hyannis Port. Each took a turn to toast the candidate’s 29th birthday. Finally, the daunting Joseph P. Kennedy called on his youngest son, Teddy.

The night before Joseph P. Kennedy’s funeral, Ted dragged a sleeping bag into the room where his father’s body lay and spent the night underneath the casket.

“I would like to drink a toast to the brother who isn’t here,” he said.

Mark Dalton, who was managing Jack’s winning ’46 campaign, was the only one present outside of the family. He would recall that moment for the rest of his life, this rare peek into the world of the tight-knit Kennedys.

Here was this little boy reminding his older siblings and his father of the oldest son, Joseph, who had been killed in a dangerous WW II bombing mission. “It took several minutes for the room to recover,” Dalton recalled in sharing this story with me many years ago.

Just 13, Teddy Kennedy was displaying the twin imperatives of being born into that incredible family: a loyalty that lasts beyond the grave and a born duty to grab the torch that tragedy passes from brother to brother.

The youngest brother would display it again when his beloved father died in 1970. Thanks to an intriguing new biography, we learn that the night before Joseph P. Kennedy’s funeral, Ted dragged a sleeping bag into the room where his father’s body lay and spent the night underneath the casket.

With the publication of Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy (Simon & Schuster), we get a fresh look at how this man’s gothic imperatives—blood loyalty and inherited duty—would make him the greatest U.S. senator of modern times.

The vital statistics of his life are grim in the extreme. He lost his oldest brother to World War II, his second and third oldest to assassins. He lost one sister to a plane accident, another to mental illness and misguided brain surgery. He’s had a son and daughter struck by cancer, a nephew, John Jr., killed in yet another plane accident. His own moral failings would bring more tragedy. His reckless driving and failure to readily go for help on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 may have cost a young woman her life.

Yet, even as he revealed grave fears for his own life, he never dropped the torch.

Months after Bobby was killed, Ted’s classmate Burton Hersh describes what happened when some firecrackers popped at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Lawrence.

“Kennedy’s smile froze immediately. I saw his legs buckle and his entire body flinch as he fought the impulse to flatten himself against the asphalt. I remember how ashen he went, how clouded his eyes looked until he recovered himself.”

There were constant death threats arriving at his office.

I, myself, recall the sight of Ted Kennedy sitting up there behind the big table at a Senate hearing back in the early 1970s. His eyes studied every person who came in the door. Wouldn’t you? He’d lost two brothers in eight years both to strangers bent on horror.

I remember how he campaigned so hard for his former aide Wayne Owens of Utah, barnstorming into Salt Lake City back in 1972, even getting the Catholic schools closed for the day so kids could help him celebrate his Mormon friend.

I remember Kennedy and wife Vicki some three decades later singing a buoyant “Shrum-a-lot” in honor of his longtime speechwriter Bob Shrum. He was holding a party at his house, which was packed to the walls, just so Bob would feel good about going to teach at NYU.

Watergate burglar, now talk-show host, G. Gordon Liddy once told me how touched he’d been years ago when he got word in federal prison how genuinely thoughtful Ted Kennedy had been toward his daughter at her high-school graduation. Kennedy, who was there for his own daughter, took time to make Liddy’s daughter feel proud on a day her father could not be with her.

In Last Lion, editor Peter Canellos and other Boston Globe reporters show how much the protagonist is driven by his duty to be a good father, uncle, friend, boss, colleague, ally and, yes, rival.

Here’s Chris Lawford, a Ted Kennedy nephew who had serious addiction problems:

“Teddy was mythic in my life. He was the link between the future and the past. His spirit and position were daily reminders of all that was great about our family. Of everything he was, and all he represented, the biggest part of him was his heart.”

Here’s Caroline speaking of her uncle’s warm embrace after her brother John Jr. and his wife were killed in the plane accident:

“Nobody was more amazing than Teddy last summer. He was everywhere. He has always been there for everyone who needs him.”

In the month following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Kennedy called each of the 177 families in Massachusetts who had lost loved ones that day.

“He talked to me like he was my next-door neighbor, my best friend. He was amazing,” recalled Sally Blair, who had lost her daughter Susan that day.

Kennedy talked to her about the losses in his family, the time he’d spent with Caroline after her brother had been killed.

“He had all the time in the world for me. I was totally blown away. I was just overwhelmed by a person of his stature reaching out to me. He did it for all of us, but he made it seem like it was just me. That was what was so impressive and so meaningful.”

Is this reaching out to those in pain driven by a will to atone for past failings, especially Chappaquiddick? Is there, as this book suggests, a strong element of “expiation” in Kennedy’s commitment to health care, which became so pronounced after 1969?

“His thousands of phone calls per year to people coping with losses was another way to give back to society,” the authors offer us, “to draw on his misfortunes to make others feel less alone in their grief.”

Did the top-quality health care his wealth afforded the Kennedy family teach him what it would be like to lack it? Did the hours he spent in hospitals sweating out son Teddy’s cancer, which would cost him his leg, alert him to the immense effort and expense that goes into giving a patient all the art and science modern medicine can provide?

For all of his family’s marked refusal to look backward, least of all at failure, the man who built his career toward winning a national health-care system has one political regret. In 1971, Richard Nixon proposed a national program that would have required employers to provide health care for their workers. Kennedy saw it as a boon to insurance companies instead of what it was: a great early chance to provide working Americans with medical coverage. Does he wish he’d joined hands with his family’s political rival?

Discerning motive is, life teaches, dangerous terrain to walk. “You never know what’s in another man’s heart,” my old boss Tip O’Neill once told me. I try to heed that advice.

Maybe in Ted Kennedy’s case it has less to do with adult experience than with what family he was born into, and in what order. Perhaps it all goes back to that young boy at that family dinner table in Hyannis Port, that little 13-year-old who stood up to honor his lost oldest brother who everyone had forgotten to include.

Last Lion is, we can surely predict, but an early draft of Kennedy’s history. There will be later efforts, both popular and academic. The hard question future biographers will ponder is what, indeed, propelled this last Kennedy brother into the league of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Could the secret to his success as a legislator be something so basic as the fact, demonstrated again and again and again in his life, that he is simply a more-considerate human being than most?

Early in his own Senate career, John F. Kennedy led the selection of the greatest senators of all time. Their portraits now hang in the Senate Reception Room of the Capitol. He, of course, could only look backward. Had he been able to look forward, he would have included his youngest brother.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’S Hardball and The Chris Matthews Show has written five bestsellers, including Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America.