Ted Kennedy: A True Man of Boston

Ted’s unique knack for politics
came more from the city of Boston than from the Kennedy aristocracy. Though he was essentially installed in office by his family and redeemed by TV in that pivotal debate, his skill, as it happened, was retail, the hustle—handshakes, back pats, and shoe leather. He lacked the brains of Jack and the messianic passions of Bobby, but he made up for it with the sort of tough Boston Irish ward politics that Ted’s father had disdained since some nobody blew his father out of the race for street commissioner in 1908. While the Kennedys were increasingly self-exiling from Boston (Jackie Kennedy later would be vocal in her dislike for the Hub), Ted was spending more time there.

After attending a whopping 10 different schools by the time he was 11, Ted finally settled into the Fessenden School in West Newton, and then did four years at Milton Academy before attending, and being expelled from, Harvard. While in the area, he spent many a Sunday getting to know his grandfather, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. In his biography of Ted, Adam Clymer set the scene:

"Before lunch, Teddy would go up to the suite the 80-year-old former mayor and congressman kept in the Bellevue Hotel near the State House. Newspaper clippings would be pouring out of his pockets, and Honey Fitz would be on the phone, offering condolences on deaths and hopes for quick recoveries to the sick. At lunch in the dining room, the former mayor was still a celebrity, and people would come up to talk about how business was in the North End, about discrimination against the Italians or the Irish…. After lunch, his grampa always took him through the kitchen to shake hands with the cooks, and then they would walk around Boston, seeing the place on the Common where British soldiers drilled, and the church where William Lloyd Garrison had preached against slavery, and they would look at the decaying port, now far behind New York’s in importance. He was learning about real problems from someone who was not preaching."

There were shades of his grandfather in the legendary legislator Ted Kennedy turned out to be. He built a 24/7 constituent services operation that was the wonder of the Senate. His wheelhouse was everything from foreign wars to Mrs. McGinty’s husband’s funeral in Foxboro. It was an approach best summed up by Marty Nolan, longtime editorial-page editor for the Globe, in the pages of this magazine in 2004. "What he had then and still has is diligence and determination, political qualities that surpass charisma and IQ," Nolan said. "He has all the tact and toughness of the youngest runt in a large Irish litter."

For his entire life Kennedy remained profoundly interested in Boston history, the continuity of things, often doing for others what Honey Fitz had done for him. He was fond of jokingly denouncing staffers who couldn’t recite the entirety of "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," as he could, and did, often, as part of his rolling, decades-long meditation on Boston. When NBC’s Katie Couric asked him in 2004, "If you had to describe Boston in just a few sentences, how would you do that?" he said simply, "It’s the best of the past and the best of the future."