Ted Kennedy Was No Victim
Teddy Kennedy ably shouldered the grief from his siblings’ death and pushed for health-care reform for decades. Gerald Posner recollects his first meeting with the senator, and why he could never fill John and Bobby’s shoes.
When I heard Teddy Kennedy died, I thought back to the first time I met him in 1975, when, as a UC Berkeley undergrad, I won the tenth annual Kennedy Memorial debate by defeating a UCLA student. Teddy flew out to Berkeley, as he did every year then, to present the award named after his late brother, John.
It was a decade later when I next was in touch, complaining in a letter that Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz was slow in responding to a request I had for International Red Cross files on Nazi war fugitive Josef Mengele. Teddy pushed the State Department to ask for the papers on my behalf, and later helped kick off a Senate hearing into documents I had uncovered about American intelligence having twice caught Mengele immediately after the war and releasing him without knowing who he was.
In between rounds of drinks, he mumbled to reporters: "They're going to shoot my ass off the way they shot Bobby."
From that time on, I sent him a copy of any book I published, and always received a good, personal letter a couple of months later after he read it, commenting on what he particularly liked. In 1991, I again reached out to him, and he was instrumental in using an op-ed I wrote in The New York Times about hidden Nazi files in Argentina, to push the first Bush administration to get the files opened.
There was only one book about which he never wrote back– the 1993 Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. It was the book in which I concluded Oswald alone killed Kennedy, and was a New York Times bestseller and one of three finalists for the Pulitzer in History. But the Kennedys had made a pact never to discuss publicly the assassinations of either John or Bobby. One of the rare times Teddy did so was when flying back in 1969 from a congressional junket to Alaska. In between rounds of drinks, he mumbled to reporters: “They’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot Bobby.”
• The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and VideosThe assassinations of his brothers shoved the mantle of Camelot onto Teddy before he was ready to assume it. He was only 36 years old when Bobby was gunned down in Los Angeles. He lost his brother Joe in a downed warplane when he was 12 and his sister Kathleen to an air crash when he was 16. Teddy had been 31 when John, the charismatic young president with so much potential for the future, was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Bobby had been murdered on the very night he captured the political momentum for winning his party’s nomination in one of America’s most turbulent years of social unrest. Although Teddy had been in the Senate by then for almost six years (having first won a special election to fill the seat John had held), he was the charming and partying baby brother who was allowed to relax while his elder brothers carried out the nation’s business.
But the public largely expected that he could step into John and Bobby’s shoes overnight. It wasn’t to be. A year later in Chappaquiddick, Kennedy’s presidential chances died together with Mary Jo Kopechne, a former secretary to Bobby Kennedy. He managed to get out of a car that he had driven off a small bridge into deep water, while she drowned. And his calls to family and friends before the police and emergency services forever cast doubt on his good judgment.
But while his enemies used Chappaquiddick as a weapon against him, he did not shirk away from what he had been raised to do—public service. In 1980 he had the guts to take on an incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, and while it wasn’t popular in the party, Teddy was right: Carter couldn’t defeat Reagan.
On the Hill, even staff members of entrenched Republican foes attest to Teddy being one of the hardest working senators. He got involved in details, worked late with his staff, and could master the minutiae as well as the lobbyists who badgered him over the years. He became a champion, as had Bobby, for the underprivileged. And he never shied away from the word “liberal,” always viewing it as a testament to being progressive, even when it had been recast by Republicans to mean “big government, large spending, and high taxes” and made him a punching bag for the right wing through the 1980s.
“Love is not an easy feeling to put into words. Nor is loyalty, or trust, or joy. But he was all of these. He loved life completely and he lived it intensely.” These words could be said about Teddy Kennedy. But it was he who said them, his voice choking, on June 8, 1968, at the memorial service for Bobby, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. For the intensely competitive Kennedys, there was no solace in finishing second. “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,” Bobby is reputed to have told an aide at the Justice Department. Teddy never fulfilled the Camelot dream left in the trail of his murdered brothers. But he did manage to serve 47 years in the U.S. Senate, never wavering from his political philosophy, unaffected by polls that said he was out of step with a country moving to the right for decades. In an era where some politicians make policy adjustments based on overnight polls, there’s something to be said for his consistency.
Teddy spent more than 40 years being the misplaced embodiment of Camelot. At times his womanizing and bouts of heavy drinking wore down even his family. But in 1991, in a highly publicized speech at Harvard, he acknowledged how he had let down so many friends and supporters with his uncontrolled personal behavior, and promised from that moment forward to “fight the good fight” in the Senate. And he did. Victimhood was not for him. It wasn’t the Kennedy style. Going out while still fighting for his decades-long dream bill of health care reform is just as he would have planned it.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.