In the forest of American politics it was one of the biggest trees that fell when the Kennedy family today announced that Senator Edward M. Kennedy died in his home in Hyannis Port late yesterday night local time. “Ted”, the last of the Kennedy brothers, was 77 and had been a member of the US Senate for 46 years. His funeral will take place on Saturday and he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, where his slain brothers John and Robert already rest.
Born on 22 February 1932, he was the youngest of the nine Kennedy siblings which by their great talents and glamorous appearance came to be seen as something near an American royal family. The death of Ted Kennedy today and his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver exactly two weeks earlier leaves the youngest sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, as the only survivor of the siblings. The passing of that generation of the “dynasty” has lead to discussion about the future of the Kennedy legacy. Some consider that the Kennedy story is now over, while others point out that several members of the younger generation have chosen to serve society, but in another way, i.e. not from elected offices – such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is a noted environmentalist.
With the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. in a plane crash in 1999 and his sister Caroline’s failed attempt to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate this winter, the only younger Kennedy now to hold a political office is Ted Kennedy’s second son, Patrick J. Kennedy. It has however been rumoured that Robert F. Kennedy’s son Christopher is considering running for one of Illinois’s seats in the Senate at the next election.
Having received a law degree in 1959, Edward M. Kennedy took part in his older brother John’s successful campaigns for re-election to the Senate in 1958 and for the presidency in 1960. In 1962 he won the special election held to fill the Senate seat for Massachusetts which had been vacated when John became president. He was only 30 at the time, the minimum age for membership of the US Senate. He took his seat in January 1963, the year which would end with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November. With his only surviving brother Robert F. Kennedy shot to death during his presidential primary campaign in 1968, Ted suddenly found himself the patriarch of the clan, whose hopes now rested on him, and surrogate father to a crowd of nephews and nieces.
Having declined to run for president himself following Bobby’s assassination, Ted was seen as a likely candidate to challenge Nixon for the presidency in 1972. This “inevitability” became an impossibility through the incident at Chappaquiddick in the summer of 1969 when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and a female passenger drowned and it was nearly ten hours before the senator reported the accident to the police.
The amazing thing about Kennedy’s career is that he managed to build himself up from this political and surely also personal nadir to become one of the most respected politicians in his country. He turned down the Democratic nominee George S. McGovern’s offer of the vice presidency in 1972 and his attempt to challenge Jimmy Carter for the presidential re-nomination in 1980 was no success.
The way he ended his speech at the Democratic convention in 1980 is often regarded as oratorical highlights, although it may seem quite pompous to those of us who are used to a less turgid style of political speeches: “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die”.
Kennedy uttered similar words at the party convention in 2008, when he in his last great speech declared that the torch had been passed again to a new generation. He was by then suffering from the brain cancer which claimed his life last night. Both Kennedy and his niece Caroline had been early supporters of Barack Obama and their investing him with the Kennedy mantle was seen as a serious blow to Hillary Clinton’s candidature.
Edward M. Kennedy was one of the most liberal members of the US Senate and made society’s less fortunate members his most important cause, which he would advocate to the end of his life. He was one of the most important champions of civil rights and also put health care, education, immigration and labour law high on his agenda. In later years he was one of the few senators to dared to oppose the war against Iraq from the beginning and counted his vote against the war as the best vote of his long career in Senate.
Health care was what he described as “the cause of my life” and “a defining issue for our society”. Through his work he helped ensure access to health care for millions of people to whom it had earlier been denied. His voice, absent due to his terminal illness, has been missed by many in the debate on health care reform which is currently perhaps the most important issue of American politics. His death means that his Senate seat will probably remain vacant until a successor is elected in some months’ time, something which may create difficulties for the process of passing the Obama administration’s health care reform.
A hallmark of Kennedy’s career was that he, despite his liberal stance, was able to work with and form friendships with his political opponents in the Republican party in a constructive and result-orientated way. He worked with George W. Bush on education reform and even joined forces with a natural opponent, the staunchly racist Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, on crime legislation. Through his ability to work with friends and foes to achieve results, he came to be one of the most respected members of the American legislature and perhaps also its most popular senator.
The question is if Edward M. Kennedy through his 46 years in the Senate and by the huge amount of important legislation he played a vital role in enacting did not actually leave a greater imprint on American society than his elder brothers were able to do in the comparatively short careers which were granted to those shooting stars.
When receiving an honorary degree from Harvard last December, Senator Kennedy said in his speech: “We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make”.