Ted Kennedy’s Living History

Ted Kennedy, remembered.

Living History

Photograph by Diego Goldberg/Sygma/Corbis

After JFK’s assassination, Ted focused on keeping his grieving family together. He was particularly concerned for Bobby, who seemed to take the loss the hardest. “I was so worried about Bobby that I tried to suppress my own grief,” he would write in his memoir, True Compass. “So I just pushed it down further and further inside.” A year later, wanting to fulfill Jack’s legacy, Bobby ran for the open Senate seat in New York and won. Ted, who was entering his second term, was sworn in alongside his older brother.

K. Dun Gifford, aide: Bobby was more of a thinker, Ted was more a doer. They joked about that. Bobby was always reading philosophy books and his speeches were always filled with things from Saint Augustine. Teddy was willing to almost wrestle with people to get legislation done.

Clymer: In Robert’s first year, he and Ted are sitting at a labor committee hearing, waiting their turn. Robert passes Ted a note saying, “Is this how I get to become a good senator?” Ted sends back a note that says yes. After a while Robert writes back, “Just how long do I have to sit here to be a good senator?” Ted’s reply is “As long as it takes, Robbie.” That could have been his motto.

David Burke, former chief of staff: Bobby would be on the floor when Teddy was and hope that Teddy would make a mistake. They were competitive like that.

Abrams: We had a softball game scheduled in the ’60s between his staff and Robert’s staff. Well, we thought it might be good to bring a couple of reinforcements. One of them was our classmate Billy Cleary [who had won a gold medal on the 1960 Olympic hockey team].

William Cleary, family friend: I said to [a staffer], “What am I doing down here?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Say you’re another staff member.”

 

Moody and impatient, Bobby never took to the Senate, and by early 1968 was itching to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the presidency. Ted didn’t like the idea, and told Bobby he couldn’t win the nomination taking on a sitting president. Bobby wouldn’t be dissuaded, though, and made his announcement. “None of my misgivings mattered anymore,” Kennedy wrote in True Compass. On June 5, 1968, the night of the California Democratic primary, Ted was campaigning for his brother in the northern part of the state.

Burke: Ted and I were in the San Francisco area. When it looked like Bobby was going to win the state, the rally we were at got louder and louder. I told Ted, “We’d better get out of here. This house is going to blow its roof.” We went back to our hotel and turned on the television. That’s how we learned Bobby had been shot.

Caplin: I came back on the train carrying Bobby Kennedy’s casket. People lined up almost from New York to Washington. That was an unbelievably long ride—six or seven hours—and Teddy sat next to the casket for the entire time. He was perspiring and his hands were damp; I really felt that he was frightened. It’s hard to imagine: He was the kid of the family and suddenly he’s the paterfamilias. I feel Ted was overwhelmed by it, and I think that explains a lot of his conduct later on.

Doherty: After the funeral, he took off on a boat and he just sailed for most of the summer.

Jack Driscoll, family friend: Being out on the water was his way of getting away from all his trials and tribulations.

Clymer: He described to me instances of driving up to the Senate and not being able to go in. I don’t think there was any question that he was clinically depressed.

Gwirtzman: There was an effort during the Democratic National Convention [in 1968] to draft him for the presidency. It was a very violent convention because of the conflict between the Chicago police and the antiwar demonstrators. They wanted him to help calm the waters.

Burke: People thought it was in their best interest and that it would be nice for Ted; it would be good for the memory of Bob. But it was just too shocking, the loss of Bobby so soon after the loss of Jack. I believe Ted was emotionally unprepared.

 

Joseph Kennedy passed away in 1969, leaving Ted as the family’s sole patriarchal figure. The deaths of Jack and Bobby had left 13 children fatherless, and—despite the demands on his time—Ted took responsibility for them. Over the years, they and their children would look to Uncle Teddy (or, as some called him, the Grande Fromage) for direction.

Melody Miller, Kennedy family spokeswoman: He would take his children and his surrogate children—all his nieces and nephews—on these annual camping trips. They saw Tanglewood and Stockbridge. He took them into factories and to amusement parks for some fun. After they had gone through a tour, maybe they had gone to John Adams’s house, he started asking them, “Okay, so what did we learn about John Adams?”

Dowd: He would always take each of them for a walk. He’d try to give them a little advice, or see if anything was on their mind. He was just a great father, not only to his kids, but to Jack’s and Bobby’s kids, too.

Stephen Kerrigan, aide: We were driving in DC and he had just gotten off the phone talking with someone about a serious legislative topic. He looks down at his list and says, “Oh, hold on.” He dials one of his great-nephews or great-nieces—I think it was their sixth birthday—and starts making animal noises. “Oh, you know what I’ve got with me? I’ve got a dog.” And then: “I’ve got a giraffe,” and, “Oh no, I’ve got a gorilla!” At the end of an incredibly hard day, that was one thing he had to make sure he got done.

 

On the evening of July 18, 1969, Kennedy attended a party for some of Bobby’s female campaign workers on Chappaquiddick Island. Late that night he left with a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. The car he was driving went off a bridge and plunged into the pond below. Kennedy was able to swim to safety; however, Kopechne was trapped. Kennedy would later say he dove repeatedly into the murky water in an attempt to save her life, yet he failed to report the accident until the next morning. “I had suffered sudden and violent loss far too many times, but this night was different,” he would write in his memoir. “This night I was responsible.” He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, but received only a suspended sentence. The political costs were higher than the legal ones: Chappaquiddick ensured that he could never be a viable candidate for president.

Gwirtzman: He had been in the Senate for seven years, but he wasn’t a leader. The first time his name came dramatically to the attention of all the people of the United States was Chappaquiddick. It was on that that they formed their first impression of him.

Dowd: He didn’t even want to go [to the party]. But that’s life, you know? You do things and you basically end up in something you didn’t want.

Gwirtzman: All sorts of rumors started floating around: He had killed [Mary Jo Kopechne]; he’d been having an affair with her; someone else was driving the car and he was covering up for them. I mean, just wild things. He considered leaving public life. I remember David Burke went for a walk with him and said, “Well, what would you do?”

Burke: In all the years since Chappaquiddick, I haven’t talked about it.

Gwirtzman: He finally decided he would address the people of Massachusetts on television and ask them to help him decide what to do: Should he get out of public life? In a draft of the talk, he was actually considering saying that he knew he could never try to achieve the office his brother had achieved. But one of his sisters objected and so that was dropped.

Clymer: I’m told that was at Eunice’s insistence.

Gwirtzman: He received 100,000 letters and telegrams after giving that speech. Considering everything that the people of Massachusetts knew about him and Chappaquiddick, they still wanted him to be their representative in the Senate.

Tuck: I knew Mary Jo Kopechne pretty well. In truth, it was an accident. He probably should have been doing things he wasn’t doing, but I think he was also a victim. The car was run off the goddamned bridge. And as far as any immoral activity with him and Mary Jo, if you want to call it that, I just never thought that.

Dowd: We had a meeting in Sudbury with about 800 people and someone brought up Chappaquiddick. The audience almost booed the guy. Ted Kennedy looked at him and said, “I hope that you don’t have to go through life with anything like that on your mind, because it’s on my mind every day.” He said, “I have to live with that, and it’s something that I just can’t forget.”

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