Part 1: Living History: Ted Kennedy, Remembered.
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.”
When Kennedy returned to Washington, his reputation was tarnished. “He was an upcoming young guy, kind of glitzy, and his brothers had a lot of star power,” says former staffer Thomas Susman. “In the Senate that counted for something, and after Chappaquiddick it didn’t count for something.” In the years that followed, he worked to reestablish his credentials as a serious legislator and an influential voice for progressive causes.
Abrams: He held 16 major hearings on Vietnam out of his subcommittee, because the Committee on Foreign Relations wasn’t holding them.
Burke: In those days, typical trips to Vietnam were arranged by the Pentagon. They’d show you what they wanted to show you. But we sent advance people to scout out various hospitals for civilian casualties, especially to look at the effect of napalm on children. The war certainly wasn’t winning the hearts and minds. It was just killing people, and it was getting worse and worse.
Dr. Lawrence Horowitz, medical adviser and former chief of staff: Kennedy didn’t believe that statistics alone were enough, because behind every statistic is a real live human being, and he wanted people to feel that.
Burke: When we arrived in Vietnam we got the usual greeting from the military. And we would just tell them, “No, here’s where we want to go.” That certainly made the wires back to Washington hum a little.
In 1971, some 2,000 Vietnam vets camped on the National Mall to protest the war.
Kerry: I’m sure we were an odd sight: thousands of veterans, some with long hair and beards, some wearing insignias of America’s finest fighting units, some singing protest songs, some waving the American flag. The Nixon White House was talking about having us all arrested, and we were under surveillance. We were having debates and discussions about whether we should stay on the Mall and risk arrest, or whether we should go somewhere else. About that time, Ted showed up. He spent hours just listening to us and showing his complete solidarity. Soon, other senators followed him, and the way was cleared for us to testify before the Senate, to tell the country what was happening in Vietnam. But it was Ted who broke the ice and made it clear that we veterans had a right to speak. It was one of those moments that crystallized for me what public service was supposed to be. I’d seen politicians who claimed to be on our side but didn’t return our calls and didn’t want to risk coming to the Mall to hear from the very men they’d sent to war, and against that backdrop of frustration stood Ted Kennedy.
Southwick: He was always a champion for people who had no other voice.
Steve Grossman, former DNC chairman: Ted Kennedy had the capacity to understand that the experience of his people was the experience of all immigrants. First it was “No Irish need apply.” Then it was “No Jews need apply.” It was “No Puerto Ricans need apply.” For him, it was all about tearing down the barbed wire—that’s what he called it—the barbed wire of bigotry and racism and hatred.
Southwick: In 1978 Kennedy negotiated with the Vietnamese government to get a group of Vietnamese wives and children of American servicemen out of the country. The soldiers had come back to the United States, but the children and wives were left behind. About two dozen of them flew all the way from Ho Chi Minh City and eventually landed at Dulles. Apparently somebody hadn’t gotten the word to the customs officials, because they wouldn’t let them through. The servicemen were waiting on our side of this Plexiglas wall, and you could see their wives and children on the other side. I was trying to deal with the bureaucracy, but things were getting more and more tense. Finally, Kennedy just walked through the gate with this determined look on his face, took a little girl by the hand, and said, “Follow me.” The whole crowd went through.