After nearly half a century, it takes some effort to conjure up the frolicsome, inexperienced 30-year-old lawyer whose announcement that he intended to replace his brother Jack as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts loosed such a furor. Politicians throughout the commonwealth got all stirred up. Within the Harvard community, it was the consensus that Joe Kennedy must have lost his mind.
Conservatives were incensed; liberals were appalled. Not that many months earlier John F. Kennedy, fortified by his father's underworld connections, had pulled off a squeaker and captured the presidency. The Bay of Pigs promptly capped the administration's initial spring—as unequivocal a demonstration of bad judgment and executive-suite ineptitude as modern American history could produce. Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, had moved up from kicking shins and squeezing heads all around the Democratic Party to infuriating the federal bureaucracy. The imminence of one more Kennedy in Washington felt like terminal overload.
Even to the initiated, Edward Moore— "Teddy"—Kennedy looked, at first glance, like a fresh-faced nonentity. High points of his performance so far had included having been tossed out of Harvard for cheating, unsuccessfully shilling for Rocky Mountain votes for John, distributing envelopes of cash during the West Virginia primary, and, on a dare, going off one of the highest ski jumps in America—a stunt he had never attempted before and was very lucky to survive.
I'd known Kennedy in passing in college. He struck most of his classmates as a tall, mischievous, second-echelon jock who, little by little, was starting to take his coursework seriously. As he would remark to me often in later years, he was never really a quick study. In the beginning, nobody had any idea how hard he was willing to work. Meanwhile, he liked to drink. And he certainly liked the girls.
Inside the White House, the prospect of Jack's kid brother stumping for his Senate seat set off alarms. Special assistant Kenny O'Donnell in particular did whatever he could to spike Ted's chances. From Harvard Law School, occasional presidential adviser Mark DeWolfe Howe released a letter in which he termed Ted's candidacy "reckless …c childishly irresponsible."
Within the family, young Kennedy's senatorial ambitions had one primary sponsor: Ted. How seriously he took this thing became apparent during the Democratic primary when he debated Eddie McCormack, the hard-nosed state attorney general and nephew of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Against McCormack's sarcastic broadsides, the exhaustively briefed newcomer stood his ground and surprised the audience with his mastery of the facts. If Kennedy's name "was Edward Moore," McCormack banged away, "your candidacy would be a joke." Kennedy controlled his temper and joined the Senate, class of 1962.
What nobody expected then was Kennedy's patience and devotion. He put in punishingly long days—most of the time he was up by 4 or 5 to go over briefing papers before a slew of experts arrived for breakfast, and several times I re-member watching him in shirt sleeves reviewing strategy with his aides as late as midnight. Once the irascible Bobby landed in the Senate, Ted handled him skillfully—another willful colleague to convince before recruiting his vote. Ted's compounding expertise gradually transformed him into the Senate's ranking authority on issues from voting rights to immigration to health care.
One morning during the '70s, I was leaving his Boston residence at Charles River Square when he stopped me in the vestibule to point out a framed letter by Daniel Webster dealing with the high-er purposes of our homegrown democratic process. The emerging "Teddy" Kennedy already understood his vocation too well.
Hersh is the author of The Education of Edward Kennedy, The Shadow President and Bobby and J. Edgar.