State of Grace

One dreary morning last February, Michael Sullivan sat in his Brockton office contemplating the daunting task of ridding Massachusetts of 38-year incumbent U.S. Senator Edward Moore Kennedy. Sullivan is not political chump change. At age 45, with five years as the popular district attorney of Plymouth County already in the bank, he’s one of the few visible stars in the black hole that is the Massachusetts Republican Party these days. A bright, articulate Irish-Catholic lad from the South End, Sullivan is on a short list of likely future GOP candidates for higher office: Congress, perhaps, or even the governorship, should Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift get caught forcing her state police bodyguard to take her kid to Gymboree.    

But unseating Ted Kennedy? The last surviving link to the martyred brothers? The liberal lion who defied the national Republican tide in 1994 by trouncing an opponent straight from central casting—Mitt Romney? The legendary legislator beatified in a new biography by veteran New York Times Washington correspondent Adam Clymer as “not just the leading senator of his time, but…one of the greats in its history”?

“He’s got money, all he needs,” sighs Sullivan. “And you’re dealing with a huge political base. You’re dealing with half a century of a family name that is highly regarded and well-respected, especially in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”  

So why even bother? “Change is healthy,” insists Sullivan. “I expect to talk about the benefits of change and how that might be positive for people.”

Yes, change is healthy all right. And as Sullivan points out, the last time Ted was up for re-election, the full force of Kennedy’s local and national political army was required to fend off Romney. Nonetheless, 42 percent of Massachusetts voters ignored all the pro-Kennedy hype and “voted for change.” Concludes Sullivan: “I think you can develop a message to improve on that by another eight percentage points.”   

Or at least you can try. But what if the change voters want has already been undertaken—by Ted Kennedy himself?

Runaway weight problem aside, the Ted on your ballot this fall is not the same figure who proved such a fat target for Romney six years ago. It’s a cliché to note Kennedy’s improved social behavior and apparent contentment since his July 1992 marriage to Victoria Reggie, but it’s also been that long since his drinking and wenching were in the news. Without the tabloid storyline as subtext, Kennedy’s tortured public persona has noticeably mellowed. At 68, he no longer remotely resembles the aloof playboy of yesteryear. Like much of the state he represents, Kennedy is aging, bloated, and dumpy-looking, a fact that makes easy sport for die-hard Kennedy haters but gives him, for the first time, something visibly in common with many constituents.    

Professionally, Ted has shed some old stereotypes about his priorities which might have cost him votes by giving more attention to local concerns and staking out issues with broad populist appeal. And in perhaps the most striking transformation of all, the man once reviled by working-class Catholics for abandoning them on issues from abortion to busing, a secular scoundrel who seemed the antithesis of his ultradevout mother, Rose, has reinvented himself in a revered Catholic image—that of a secular sinner who sought and found spiritual redemption.

Says longtime Kennedy friend Peter Meade: “In a way, he’s become a lot like Rose.”