Edward Kennedy, known as Ted, was the youngest of nine children, 17 years younger than his brother John F. Kennedy. As a United States senator, he served the people of Massachusetts for 47 years.
Like his brothers, Ted attended Harvard College. While there, he arranged for a friend to take a Spanish exam for him, an incident he later had to own up to before taking public office. After college he earned his law degree from the University of Virginia and got a job at the Suffolk County, Massachusetts district attorney’s office in Boston.
In the Senate
After John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president in 1961, he arranged for a family friend to hold his seat in the U.S. Senate until Ted became old enough to serve there. The people of Massachusetts elected Ted as their senator in 1962 — a position he held until his death in 2009.
Head of the Family
The Kennedy brothers were taught by their father to strive for the highest office in the land. As each died, the next was expected to take up the cause. Joe Jr., the oldest brother, died when Ted was twelve, John and Robert were murdered two decades later. His father, cut down by a stroke in 1961, died in 1969, leaving Ted, the baby of the family, as the patriarch. “I can’t let go,” he told an aide. “If I let go, Ethel will let go, and my mother will let go, and all my sisters.”
Kennedy’s family legacy seemed to assure him a competitive candidacy for the presidency — but for a fatal mistake on July 18, 1969. Following a dutiful appreciation party for the “boiler room girls” who had worked on his brother Robert’s campaign, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Although Kennedy managed to escape, his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Furthermore, Kennedy did not report the incident immediately. Later, he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Chappaquiddick seemed to quash Kennedy’s presidential prospects.
In 1980, however, Kennedy challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries. Initially popular in opinion polls, he quickly lost ground in the actual primaries, finally conceding.
Although never president, Kennedy became an effective senator, exceeding both of his brothers in his legislative accomplishments. An advocate of liberal ideals — and a lightning rod for conservative criticism — he focused much of his energy on health care and education bills. Though a standard bearer for the left, Kennedy was able to forge bipartisan alliances to get his legislation passed. According to journalist and biographer Adam Clymer, Kennedy deserves “recognition not just as the leading senator of his time, but as one of the greats in [Senate] history.”
Since Chappaquiddick, Kennedy’s personal life has been scrutinized intensely. He married Virginia Joan Bennett in 1958; they divorced in 1982. In 1992 he married Victoria Reggie. Kennedy had three children from his first marriage and two stepchildren from his second. He was a particularly strong presence in the lives of his nieces and nephews and he had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He told a story about his nephew John F. Kennedy Jr.: “Once, when they asked John what he would do if he went into politics and was elected president, he said: 'I guess the first thing is call up Uncle Teddy and gloat.’ I loved that.”
On August 25, 2009, Ted Kennedy died at the family compound in Hyannis Port after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2008.
Forever enshrined in myth by an assassin's bullet, Kennedy's presidency long defied objective appraisal. Part of the award-winning Presidents collection.
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