Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died Tuesday night at 77 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer, was one of the remarkable political characters of American political history. As the youngest child of a remarkable political dynasty, he overcame tragedy, an early reputation as a political lightweight, his own personal demons and sometime bad judgment to become one of the most consequential members of the U.S. Senate in our time and, perhaps, in American history. His legacy is mixed but his passions, his commitment, and, in time, his legislative skills became the stuff of legend.
Even those who disagreed with his politics will miss him. Those who found him inspirational, although his death was not a surprise, may feel a sense of devastation.
Ted Kennedy's life embodied the contradictions and ironies that life sometimes brings to the fore. As the youngest of the children of the legendary patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, he was the baby of the family, of whom little was expected early on, content to labor in the shadow of his older brothers. Yet when John and, later, Robert were assassinated Ted suddenly had to assume a role for which he had not prepared, as patriarch of the dynasty, surrogate father to the children of his brothers, and the embodiment of the Kennedy dream.
He was hardly flawless in that role. Few can forget the tragedy at Chappaquiddick in 1969, where Sen. Kennedy drove a car off a bridge and into water. His passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died, and Sen. Kennedy fumbled the aftermath unforgivably. At various times in his life he had a reputation for loving strong drink and the ladies too much, and for perhaps understandable excess. Yet he also developed a reputation as a serious and prepared legislator, devoted to the liberal causes that defined his life yet able to reach across the aisle and develop not only alliances but warm friendships with Republicans and moderates.
From our perspective, as believers in strictly limited government, a legacy as a skillful maker of new laws is inevitably a mixed one. Respectfully, we do not see the strengthening of government, the embodiment of coercion in society, as the most efficacious or logical way to express compassion. Yet we must acknowledge that many who disagree are sincere and well-intentioned, and that Ted Kennedy, a child of wealth and privilege, felt genuine compassion for those disadvantaged by poverty and discrimination.
Over his long career — almost 47 years in the Senate — Sen. Kennedy was instrumental in strengthening the hand of government in our national life. Yet he was not always the predictable partisan of big government. In the 1970s he was instrumental in achieving airline and trucking deregulation, he helped to end military conscription, and championed civil liberties. He was as responsible and measured in his opposition from the outset to the war in Iraq as he was irresponsible and demagogic in his first outburst against the nomination in 1987 of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
Combined with the death of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver a few weeks ago, Ted Kennedy's death brings the tale of one of America's remarkable political dynasties full circle. John and Robert dominated the politics of the 1960s and left imprints still felt today. Yet with all his flaws and weaknesses, Ted's persistence and devotion to the sometimes unglamorous work of the Senate may well have had a more lasting impact on the lives of Americans.
Rest in peace.