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Kennedy found new issues to throw himself into. In 1970 he introduced his first bill to establish a system of universal health-care coverage. He confounded people who thought of him as a doctrinaire liberal by pushing for airline deregulation and for required sentencing of convicted criminals. He promoted arms-control talks with the Soviet Union but also devoted himself to the cause of Soviet dissidents and would-be Jewish émigrés.
It was Chappaquiddick as much as anything else that sabotaged his most serious attempt at the White House: his fight in 1980 to push Carter aside. Almost three decades later, that campaign is still a bit of a puzzle. His ideological differences with Carter never seemed great enough to justify a challenge to a sitting President of his own party. His main complaint was that Carter wasn't moving forward fast enough on health care, "the great unfinished business on the agenda of the Democratic Party," as he called it. In a televised interview on Nov. 4, 1979, just three days before he would launch his campaign, Kennedy gave CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd a notoriously rambling answer to the simple question "Why do you want to be President?" The man who had spent years on a trajectory to the White House still couldn't say exactly why.
In the end, Kennedy won 10 primaries. Carter took 24, then sailed into the propellers of Ronald Reagan in the fall. But that failed campaign liberated Kennedy. He gave the best speech of his life at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, the speech of a man who had no intention of exiting the public stage. Because the White House was never again a serious option for him, he was free to concentrate once and for all on legislating.
It was the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, and the Republicans had just retaken the Senate not an easy time to be the torchbearer for liberalism. But Kennedy assumed the role gladly. He became not only a dogged defender of the faith but also an even more adept player of the congressional game. In the '80s, he teamed repeatedly with the unlikeliest of allies, conservative Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. It was Hatch and Kennedy who got the first major AIDS legislation passed in 1988, a $1 billion spending measure for treatment, education and research. Two years later, they pushed through the Ryan White CARE Act to assist people with HIV who lack sufficient health-care coverage. But if Kennedy knew how to play ball with the other side, he also knew how to play hardball. When Reagan tried to put Robert Bork on the Supreme Court, it was Kennedy who led the ferocious and ultimately successful liberal opposition.
Kennedy wasn't nearly as prominent in the next major battle over a court seat, the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas by George H.W. Bush. Even in the best of times, Kennedy's reputation for womanizing would have made it awkward for him to sit in judgment when Thomas was accused by Anita Hill of sexual harassment. But the Senate hearings on Thomas started at a particularly bad moment for Kennedy, just months after one of the messiest episodes in his public life. In March, while visiting the family compound in Palm Beach, Fla., Kennedy had roused his son Patrick and his nephew William Kennedy Smith out of bed so they could join him for drinks at a local bar. Smith returned to the compound that night with a young woman who would later accuse him of raping her. He was eventually acquitted after a nationally televised trial in which Kennedy was called as a witness. But the image of the capering Senator leading two younger men out to play reawakened all the old misgivings about Kennedy, women and alcohol. The man who had once been Prince Hal, the reluctant heir to the throne, was in danger of turning into Falstaff, the aging reprobate.
Kennedy pulled himself back from that brink. In the summer of the same year, a decade after his divorce from Joan, Kennedy re-encountered Victoria Reggie, a 37-year-old lawyer and gun-safety advocate who had briefly been an intern in his Senate office. Now she lived in Washington with her two children from a previous marriage. Soon they were dating, and a year later they were married. The new marriage transformed Kennedy, giving him a feeling of contentment and stability he had not enjoyed for years. It was a newly energized Kennedy who moved on to the legislative accomplishments of the '90s, like the Family and Medical Leave Act. When the Republicans retook Congress in 1994, it was Kennedy who would push Bill Clinton from the left when Clinton's old soul mates from the Democratic Leadership Council were urging him to move right. "The last thing this country needs," he said then, "is two Republican Parties."
Yet when the next President turned out to be a Republican, Kennedy still found a way to work with him on shared goals. Kennedy spearheaded the effort to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, a priority for George W. Bush. But they later parted ways over what Kennedy felt was Bush's failure to adequately fund the program. And on other issues, there could be no common ground. In 2002, Kennedy was one of the 23 Senators who voted against authorizing the Iraq war. Years later, he would call it the "best vote" he ever cast in the Senate.
But by that time, there had been a lot of good votes votes that left the country a changed place and a better one. Nobody talks about Camelot anymore. They struck the scenery long ago. Without Ted, the Kennedy legacy would be mostly beautiful afterglow, just mood music and high rhetoric. More than either of his brothers, he took the mythology and shaped it into something real and enduring.
On the weekend of his Inauguration in 1961, John Kennedy gave Ted, the last born of the Kennedy siblings, an engraved cigarette box. It read, "And the last shall be first." That was almost 50 years ago. Neither of them knew then in just what ways that prophecy might turn out to be true.