Think of what it must have been like to be Teddy Kennedy growing up. There was the immensely powerful father, loving but demanding. There was Joe Jr., the dashing pilot who died over the channel. There was Jack, war hero, glamorous, sexy as hell. There was Bobby, intense, driven, shrewd, passionate. And there was Teddy, the baby brother, the quintessential last son, almost an afterthought.
It's my hunch that Kennedy's first great battle—and one that foreshadowed his years of service—was fought within his family as he struggled to emerge from the shadows of all these giant figures. It's the great question for all of us, really: how do you get leverage, where do you fit in? And for Kennedy it was much damned tougher than for the rest of us, because the ground around him was trod by heroes. Yet he did it, slowly but surely. In the end, without being a war hero and without being Mr. Glamour, he embodied a kind of liberal probity and excellence. Who the hell else comes close in American politics? Nobody I can think of.
How did he do it? He kept after it. He told jokes and stories and tried to be good company. I remember a meal with Teddy in Hyannis Port where the seating spoke volumes. The men, including Joe Sr., and the interesting guests were at one end, and the women and the mother and Jackie were down at the other end of the table. The old man was at a point in his life when, because of his stroke, all he could say was no even when he meant yes. He would laugh in merriment and say no, no, no—even though he meant yes. And the main one trying to make him laugh was Teddy.
He didn't retreat from the old man and Jack and Bobby, but stayed in there, in the fight. They were such a heroic family, in the Greek sense of the word. And, in the thick of these heroes, Teddy found his niche, which is what everybody wants to do in life: find a niche.
I had gotten to know Jack Kennedy in the late 1950s when we became neighbors in Georgetown. We could go up the alley to each other's gardens. He was great fun to talk to, Jack. In the very best sense of the word, he loved gossip—he always, always wanted to know what people were talking about. In those days Teddy was really the younger brother—"We'll get Teddy to do this, we'll get Teddy to do that." He was an odd-jobs man.
When the story broke in 1962 that Teddy, who was then in contention for the Senate, had been kicked out of Harvard for two years after getting a friend to take a Spanish exam for him, JFK was philosophical about it. "It's out, and now he's got to fight it," the president said. In a conversation on the last day of March that year, JFK told me, "He feels like he's been kicked in the balls, really singing the blues," but that it was good to get the news out and work from there. I asked him if he thought it would hurt Teddy in the Senate race. I still remember the edge in the president's voice when he replied, "It won't go over with the WASPs. They take a very dim view of looking over your shoulder at someone else's exam paper. They go in more for stealing from stockholders and banks." He was proud of Ted, in a cool and conflicted way. He was his brother, and he loved him, though it could be hard to tell with JFK, who was one of the most ironic men to ever live.
I remember very well the weekend that Teddy was nominated for the Senate at the Democratic Party convention in Springfield, Mass. I was on the ground covering it, and I got a message to call a mysterious "Operator 18" in Washington. I picked up a pay phone near the press table, and "Operator 18" turned out to be JFK, looking for a fill on what was going on. He was following the maneuvering with huge attention to detail. That was the first time I recall Teddy emerging as a peer.
The little brother was becoming something more substantial, a serious fellow about policy. Douglas and Phyllis Dillon gave a dinner-dance one night in January 1963 with Jackie and Jack as guests of honor. I watched Jack and Teddy, now a senator from Massachusetts, together, with Teddy doing all the talking and the president roaring with laughter. I walked over, and Teddy said, "Some pipeline I have into the White House. I tell him 1,000 men are out of work in Fall River; 400 men out of work in Fitchburg. And when the Army gets that new rifle, there's another 600 men out of work in Springfield. And do you know what he says to me? 'Tough s--t.' "
It is to Ted Kennedy's everlasting credit that he did care, and kept caring through it all. He was not a great brain, but had lots of humor. He was a joyous man, and a real master of the Senate. He crashed a lot of things—he was hot, and seemed to get hotter for a while there. There was the plane crash that broke his back, and Chappaquiddick. A lot of what he touched seemed to go bad. But you have to give him this: he never gave up, and he grew into an important figure. He made it out of those shadows.