Ted Kennedy: A True Man of Boston

Ted Kennedy’s first major humiliation—the first of many (and many of those self-inflicted)—came at the hands of Eddie McCormack. The scene was Southie High in 1962. Young Ted was squaring off against the popular two-term attorney general in a debate for the Senate seat that John F. Kennedy had freed up when he took the White House. A tough Boston pol who shared more than a few chromosomes with JFK’s so-called Irish Mafia, McCormack planned to repay Teddy’s audacity with a ferocious public beating in an auditorium full of his rowdy, blue-collar supporters.

Up until that point, Ted Kennedy’s Boston bona fides were questionable, McCormack’s characterization of him as a parachutist not entirely unfair. Whatever his pedigree, Ted was raised mostly in Bronxville, New York; London; and Palm Beach. When JFK rose to power and Bobby declined to take the seat, Ted’s father, Joe Kennedy Sr., pushed his youngest boy to run, in spite of his brothers’ belief that he wasn’t remotely ready for the job. Teddy’s own inclination was to set out for the territories, maybe New Mexico, to plant his flag there. As Joe McGinnis wrote in his book The Last Brother, after Ted had campaigned for Jack in 13 western states, he found that "he felt far more at ease in the West than he ever had in Massachusetts, or Florida, or wherever he was supposed to consider home." But his political prospects were brightest back in the Bay State; Teddy was savvy enough to realize that. So he stayed here, and ran against McCormack.

By then, the Kennedys were international players, increasingly removed from the hard-scrapping, cigar-chomping street politics of the Hub. The world was their constituency. To show that Teddy was indeed ready for the U.S. Senate, his father had him sent on a 16-nation tour of Africa with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Trips to Israel and Europe followed. When he arrived in Ireland—a country whose politics would become a passion—he was greeted with a haymaker courtesy of the Dublin Sunday Independent, accusing him of being a carpetbagger. "He’s coming because later this year he is due to be involved in a political fight back in Massachusetts," the piece read. "He is playing the game political in what has now come to be known as the ‘Kennedy Method.’ You do not spend your time campaigning in your own little patch." Even the Irish, many of whom kept framed photos of JFK next to their framed photos of the Pope (from whom Teddy received his First Communion), thought this kid was a punch line.

At the Southie debate, McCormack gleefully read the Independent story to the raucous crowd, leading off a blistering direct assault on his opponent, famously ending with the line, "If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke." But however rattled Kennedy was by the savaging, McCormack hadn’t factored in how his performance would play on TV. In the auditorium, Kennedy was finished, exposed. But on TV, a cruel and sweaty anachronism from benighted pre-Camelot times had tortured a nice, handsome, respectable young man for no good reason, and the young man had stood up to it. Or at least hadn’t collapsed under it. Kennedy won the day. According to the Herald (setting a precedent for itself), Massachusetts had "voted its heart rather than its mind."

Ted, smarting from the debate, quickly set to work as if his name were anything but Kennedy, like a true son of the soil. Thus was born the duality that has fascinated and appalled Kennedy watchers for more than four decades: Edward Kennedy versus Edward Moore. The former: a reckless scion of unchecked appetites, a disgraced shambles of a man. The latter: a tireless worker who took no votes or victories for granted. The story of Ted Kennedy is the story of the struggle between these two selves.