IN MEMORIAM

09.04.12

Vicki Kennedy Remembers Ted Kennedy at the DNC

The Democrats celebrated the late Senate legend Tuesday night. Lloyd Grove talked with Vicki Kennedy about his legacy—and the party he loved.

The last time Victoria Reggie Kennedy attended a Democratic National Convention, it was with her husband, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

It was Aug. 25,  2008, in Denver. A few months earlier, he had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He was recovering from surgery, prone to seizures and having trouble with his eyesight. Yet he insisted on making the trip to deliver a convention speech in support of Barack Obama.        

“I remember every single second of it—second by second,”  Vicki Kennedy told me on Tuesday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C., the site of this week’s convention. “What I remember was the excitement and the exhilaration and the determination of this man.”        

The senator’s widow, wearing a royal blue suit, was drying off from a rain shower and sitting beside me on an upholstered bench in the spa of Charlotte’s Ritz Carlton. It was a few hours before a video tribute to her late husband—introduced by his red-headed great-nephew, Joseph Kennedy III, a congressional candidate in Massachusetts—brought the delegates to their feet with shouts of “Ted-dy! Ted-dy!” (This convention is the first without Teddy in more than five decades; he’d been to every one since 1956.)     

At the Ritz Carlton, Vicki Kennedy continued: “So we got to Denver and he just didn’t feel 100 percent. But it wasn’t from his cancer. We didn’t know what. Maybe it was his back. It ended up being the first kidney stone of his life—which was this unbelievable curveball. We were on a roller coaster that you can’t imagine. And up until two hours beforehand, he was in the hospital with a kidney stone. And he sat up and said, ‘I didn’t come to Denver to not give my speech. Let’s go, Vicki!’ And the doctors are looking at him in surprise. And it was just pure adrenaline.”        

Vicki Kennedy was operating on a different emotion as she got ready for a cocktail party in the hotel ballroom hailing the soon-to-open Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, an educational and archival facility adjacent to Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Also, of course, celebrating the Democratic icon who inspired it. 

“It is tough,” she said. “It is tougher than I thought it would be…Just being my first convention without him is in and of itself an emotional experience.”

The party—which featured plenty of booze, hundreds of friends, and a passel of senators, House members and candidates, including young Joe Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren, plus rousing and funny speeches by everyone from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to Sen. John Kerry—had all the bittersweet joviality of an Irish wake.

“Bitter because we miss my dad,” former Rhode Island representative Patrick Kennedy told me, “but really sweet because of the memories that people are sharing about what a difference he made in their lives.”

Former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, a close friend of Kennedy’s and the host of the shindig as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, confided that he’s still grieving, but “Teddy wasn’t solemn. He’d be annoyed if we made it a solemn occasion. He’d be furious. No one enjoyed life or politics more than that guy did. So this is a celebration.”

“It is tough,” she said. “It is tougher than I thought it would be…Just being my first convention without him is in and of itself an emotional experience.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said his friend’s death “leaves a huge, huge hole in the Senate. Very few actually can do the coalition-building that Teddy could.” Leahy, who used to walk with Kennedy back and forth between the Russell Senate Office Building and the Capitol to vote, added that it’s still hard to believe he’s gone. Sometimes Leahy will be reading something interesting “and I’ll think, I gotta call him in the morning. Oh, wait a minute.”

In his remarks to the crowd, John Kerry recalled his friend’s mischievous side. Once, after he, Kennedy and Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell accepted the offer of a chartered plane ride to Massachusetts from New Jersey’s mega-rich Frank Lautenberg, they were surprised to receive a bill for $1,800 apiece on Lautenberg’s official stationery. The buttoned-down Pell was especially outraged. Kerry said that as the normally buttoned-up Pell vented and bitterly protested, Kennedy cracked a grin. It turned out that he had borrowed Lautenberg’s stationery and made up the fake bills.        

“Frank still hasn’t gotten over it,” Kerry said.        

In a more serious vein, Kerry said, “If Teddy saw the Senate today, he would not just be disappointed…he would be appalled by this ‘my way or the highway’ attitude and the way in which [Republican leader] Mitch McConnell has set out to literally try to destroy a presidency.”  

After the speeches, a short film about the E.M.K. Institute was shown. Poignantly, it was produced by Kennedy’s daughter Kara, a cancer survivor who died last September of a heart attack. 

Former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy, the eldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, called her late uncle “the lion and the conscience. What Ted was about was joy and moving forward and getting thing done.”

She added: “I’m sad. I miss him. I miss a lot of people.”