Ted Kennedy’s Living History

Ted Kennedy, remembered.

Kennedy made a point of not getting involved in contested Democratic races. “If you are a senior leader in the party, it’s just awkward,” says Governor Deval Patrick. But in early 2008, just days before the Super Tuesday primaries, Kennedy broke his own rule by endorsing Barack Obama for president over Hillary Clinton.
Tribe: I said, “Teddy, I think it’s critical for the country that Barack be the nominee. I know you try to avoid becoming involved….” He cut me off. “You don’t have to say another word. Caroline is coming out for him tomorrow and I’m going to do it three days from now.” Then he started musing, “You know, Barack says that we’ve got to turn the page, and that means he’ll have to turn the page a bit on people like you and me.”

Hagan: People underestimated how much civil rights meant to him. He called me before his endorsement and said, “We fought our whole life for this, and now it’s our time. We’ve got to do this.”

Nolan: I think one reason he chose Obama over Hillary is that he could see Obama was more of a leader and not a triangulator. There was something straightforward about Kennedy. Bill Clinton was all indirection and bullshit.

Patrick: I’ll tell you, we had some pretty interesting conversations about his conversations with President and Mrs. Clinton after that decision.

Johnston: When he was campaigning for Obama, I arranged for him to speak at a luncheon. He looked good and gave a good speech. Six hours later, Teddy came [into an event] with Vicki and he looked terrible. He started talking about Bobby; he started to cry. He couldn’t go on. He went over to a chair and just plopped into it, and then Vicki embraced him. I called Ethel Kennedy and said he’d better take a month off. A week later, he collapsed.

On the morning of May 17, 2008, Kennedy woke at his home in Hyannisport and walked into the living room. Moments later, he suffered a seizure brought on by a malignant glioma, a particularly deadly form of brain cancer. He would still manage to deliver a landmark speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. Then, in April 2009, when a Republican filibuster threatened a crucial Medicare bill, he made the trip to Washington—against his doctors’ recommendations.

Horowitz: When he was first diagnosed, he was told he had a very limited period of time to live. Six weeks to three months at the outside.

McGinty: When I first heard he had cancer, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Then I thought, Well, cancer doesn’t know who it’s met.

Creedon: I celebrated Mass at his house in Virginia between October and March or so of last year. He would always share a prayer of gratitude, something he was thankful for: soldiers overseas, doctors and nurses. There was no self-pity, no self-preoccupation.

Horowitz: I’ve seen a lot of people go through very difficult medical situations. But I’ve seldom seen someone with the medical problem he was facing be able to get through it without spending a single day in bed—including the day of his surgery. From the time he was diagnosed, the man did not spend a single day in bed.

Doherty: Instead of talking about some of the things he would like to do, he tried actually doing them. I mean, his days went on and on.

Horowitz: He sets goals. He set a goal to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The night before he was supposed to speak he developed a kidney stone. Four to five hours before his time to speak, he was flat on his back, almost unable to move.

Hooton: He was hurting like the dickens. He told me, “Until four minutes before going onstage I didn’t know if I could make it.” But I knew if you had a convention hall, he’d make it.

Horowitz: [For the Medicare vote] he made the decision to overrule the medical advice he was getting and to return to the Senate. Very few people know that he paid a price for that. He had a significant complication on the flight back to Massachusetts. We were able to deal with it, and treat it, but it was a definite complication of his going down there.

Kerry: Classic Ted. He was there not for himself but for a promise he had kept to seniors to protect Medicare. When he walked out on the Senate floor, Republicans and Democrats stood together and applauded him at length. Old men were openly weeping. It reminded me of the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway when Ted Williams came out and all the superstars of baseball just wanted to touch that aging legend and shake his hand. We were saying goodbye as a Senate, even though we didn’t want to admit it.

Horowitz: The big change came in May 2009, when we got a report that indicated his disease might be stirring. It was certainly not a good sign. He decided he would move back up to the Cape and focused quite a bit on how to prepare, like discussing how he would like funeral arrangements to be conducted.

Tribe: I was at Eunice’s funeral [on August 14, 2009]. The fact that Teddy wasn’t there was very poignant, just knowing that Teddy’s absence meant that it was near the end. I thought to myself, I’m going to be back here awfully soon.

Less than two weeks later, Edward M. Kennedy passed away at his home in Hyannisport. He was 77.

Cari Beauchamp, historian: At every turn, Teddy simultaneously broke your heart and earned your respect. There were so many times he could have said the hell with it, and he never did.

Mudd: Knowing the major faults in his character, and knowing the mistakes he’d made and the untruths that he’d told, and the inability or refusal to live up to Chappaquiddick, all that makes it an even more unlikely story that Ted Kennedy would be talked about now as one of the great senators in U.S. history. But he belongs there. There’s no question.

Horowitz: In this country, let’s face it: Not everybody starts at the same starting line. So being a Kennedy, he started farther down the field, right? But the question is, What do you do with the time you have? That’s how Ted looked at it.

Kerry: To a large extent, we live in a world fashioned by Ted Kennedy. He played an important role in the passing of so many landmark laws: voting rights, worker safety, the end of the military draft, Medicare, Medicaid, equal funding for women’s collegiate athletics, children’s health insurance, a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., AIDS and cancer research, mental health parity, No Child Left Behind. There’s never been a greater legislator.

Nolan: The net outcome of that work is something that made the truck driver’s life better, the dishwasher’s income a little higher, the college student’s life a little easier.

Frank: He consistently used the enormous prestige he had by birth, by talent, by energy on behalf of people who were vulnerable. He was the greatest example of a man who acquired great strength and used it to protect weaker people.

Coombs: He leaves with me the idea that nobody is too unimportant.

Tribe: Maybe because Ted was the baby of the family and knew what it was like to be overlooked, maybe it was because of the tragedies that befell his brothers. But he knew human suffering and he sensed that he could help to make it somewhat better.

Cullinane: John and Robert Kennedy created great hope and Ted had to deliver on it—and that’s the hard part. He spent his whole life trying to deliver on that promise.

Hagan: In the final years of his life, Ted was finally comfortable being Ted Kennedy and being the brother of Jack and Bobby. Listen, I loved them, but the tragedy is they’ve been stuck in time. Teddy was not a myth. He was human. The thing that made him ring true to people was that he had his flaws but he was seeking to be understood and to be forgiven. Most people, if they’re honest, that’s what their life is. Every one of us looks for some kind of redemption.