There was a time 40 years ago, right after the assassination of his brother Robert, when it looked like Edward Kennedy would become President someday by right of succession. The Kennedy curse, the one that had seen all three of his brothers cut down in their prime, had created for him a sort of Kennedy prerogative, or at least the illusion of one, an inevitable claim on the White House. For years he seemed like a man simply waiting for the right moment to take what everybody knew was coming his way.
Everybody was wrong. Ted Kennedy would never reach the White House. His weaknesses and the long shadow of Chappaquiddick were an obstacle that even his strengths couldn't overcome. But his failure to get to the presidency opened the way to the true fulfillment of his gifts, which was to become one of the greatest legislators in American history. When their White House years are over, most Presidents set off on the long aftermath of themselves. They give lectures, write books, play golf and make money. Jimmy Carter even won a Nobel Prize. But every one of them would tell you that elder-statesmanship is no substitute for real power.
Because Kennedy never made it to the finish line, he never had to endure a post-presidential twilight. Instead, by the time of his death on Aug. 25 in Hyannis Port at the age of 77, he had 46 working years in Congress, time enough to leave his imprint on everything from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, a law that expands support for national community-service programs. Over the years, Kennedy was a force behind the Freedom of Information Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. He helped Soviet dissidents and fought apartheid. Above all, he conducted a four-decade crusade for universal health coverage, a poignant one toward the end as the country watched a struggle with a brain tumor. But along the way, he vastly expanded the network of neighborhood clinics, virtually invented the COBRA system for portable insurance and helped create the laws that provide Medicare prescriptions and family leave.
And for most of that time, he went forward against great odds, the voice of progressivism in a conservative age. When people were getting tired of hearing about racism or the poor or the decay of American cities, he kept talking. When liberalism was flickering, there was Kennedy, holding the torch, insisting that "we can light those beacon fires again." In the last year of his life, with the Inauguration of Barack Obama, he had the satisfaction of seeing a big part of that dream fulfilled. In early 2008, when Obama had just begun to capture the public imagination, Kennedy bucked the party establishment. Just before Super Tuesday, the venerable Senator from Massachusetts enthusiastically endorsed the young Senator from Illinois, helping propel Obama to the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House.
So does it matter that Kennedy never made it to the presidency? Any number of mere Presidents have been pretty much forgotten. But as the Romans understood, there can be Emperors of no consequence and Senators whose legacies are carved in stone.
Rose Kennedy wanted a family. Joe Kennedy wanted a dynasty. They both got what they wanted, but only for a time. Joe had made a fortune in film production, liquor, real estate and stocks. But he wasn't just a businessman. In the scope of his ambitions and schemes, he was something out of Shakespeare. He married Rose in 1914, and as their children arrived, he formed the conviction not only that the boys belonged in public life but that one of them, maybe more than one, should be President of the United States.
This was the atmosphere that Ted was born into on Feb. 22, 1932 the last of the nine Kennedy children. But from the start, he had three elder brothers as a buffer between himself and the worst of the old man's ambition for his sons. All the same, he grew up at some distance from his parents. Over the years, Joe and Rose had become increasingly estranged. Overweight and lonely, Ted was shuttled through a succession of boarding and day schools, but he grew into an athletic, good-looking teenager, one who ambled into Harvard, where Jack and Bobby had gone before him.
He hadn't been at Harvard long before he screwed up in a way that would come back to haunt him years later. In his freshman year, Kennedy was having trouble with a Spanish class. There was a test coming up, and he needed to do well in order to be eligible to play varsity football the next year. With the encouragement of some of his buddies, Kennedy recruited a friend who was good at Spanish to take the exam in his place. The scheme backfired. The surrogate was caught, and both boys were expelled, though Harvard offered them the opportunity to be readmitted later if they showed evidence of "constructive and responsive citizenship."