Fresh grief overcomes her at unexpected times. A note in his handwriting slips out of a book. An elderly woman grabs her hand on the street to relate how “Teddy” affected her life. “It’s still hard,” says Vicki Kennedy in a rare interview. Even answering the simple question of when she most misses her husband seems painful. She later responds by email. “Missing someone you love is an always thing. But there are certain times that have been especially difficult. I recall being in the Senate chamber to pay my respects to Senator Byrd after his passing. It was incredibly difficult to look even in the direction of Teddy’s desk.”
For many people, nostalgia for the era of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy may seem more acute in the past year—one of the most politically paralyzed in recent history. The Massachusetts Democrat—the Senate’s liberal lion—has been fondly recalled for his ability to cultivate Republican allies. He loved “the chemistry of people working together, that you felt that there was something bigger than yourself,” says Vicki. And he left his mark on a vast array of legislation aimed at helping the little guy—health care, voting rights, airline deregulation, labor.
In the two and a half years since Kennedy was felled by brain cancer at 77, the woman he called the love of his life has been dedicated to preserving his legacy while trying to define her own path. It hasn’t been easy. There was intense pressure on her to run for his Senate seat, and private grumbling from the storied family about her role and influence going forward. “There was a lot of pressure [to run],” she says—some from Teddy himself. “I would never discuss it [with him] because I always felt that he was the senator.” In the end, Republican Scott Brown won the seat in a major upset.
These days, Vicki devotes her energy to speaking as a surrogate for her husband and his causes, and to developing the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, of which she is cofounder and board president. The education center will be a $60 million monument to him, and will provide visitors a primer on the U.S. Senate. She says the institute is intended to show Congress at its best.
Home life is harder. Vicki recently sold the Washington house the couple shared. “It’s kind of a big, lonely place to be,” she says, adding that she “just felt his absence too strongly.” She purchased a smaller place a few blocks away. New tensions with the extended family seem to be centered on the use of the Hyannis Port house. Kennedy stipulated in his will that it was to be transferred to his institute—and ultimately include a public component. According to The Boston Globe, family members with homes on adjacent lots have voiced concerns about their privacy.
One of her closest family allies is Caroline Kennedy. Vicki dismisses the recent criticism heaped on John F. Kennedy’s daughter for releasing 50-year-old audiotapes of her mother, Jackie, making unseemly comments about various political players. “Caroline did a great service for history in revealing them and not editing them,” she says. “Even the fact that the questioner didn’t ask [Jackie] anything about herself gives you such insight into what the role of women was, what the expected role of a wife was as first lady.”
It has often been said that Vicki Kennedy brought stability to Teddy’s life—after the assassinations of his brothers, the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, and the years of freewheeling bachelorhood following his divorce from Joan Kennedy. But she doesn’t see it that way. “I think he was always a remarkable human being,” Vicki says. “I don’t think anyone should be defined by the worst moment of their lives.”