The Making of the Remaking of Edward M. Kennedy


On an overcast, muggy mid-July afternoon, the youngest of nine children of one of America’s richest families is flying home with his older sister to celebrate his mother’s birthday. There will be television cameras, tape recorders, photographers, and reporters present. There will be sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, cousins and cousins-in-law. No matter that the mother’s ninety-second birthday has already been celebrated the precious weekend. On this afternoon, 550 senior-citizen activists will be bused in from across the state. Members of an organization called the Silver Haired Legislature, they will provide the backdrop for yet another media event at the Hyannis Port compound, yet another recreation of the idyllic myth of Camelot. If, as a poll conducted by Paul Tsongas a year ago suggested, a candidate’s image as a family man will assume great importance for Democratic voters, the inconvenience of this hastily planned afternoon round trip, on the day the Reagan tax-cut legislation is scheduled to come to a Senate vote, is necessary because of the image it will create.   

Through the spring and summer, the family-man image has been polished. One national-magazine writer, Dotson Rader, of Parade, had been dispatched to cover a Christmas-holiday ski trip; his flattering report is accompanied by a picture featuring Kennedy surrounded by his children. Patrick, the youngest at 14, has sat with his father on the dais at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his photograph—arm-in-arm with his father and the grandson of NAACP director Benjamin Hooks, all of them singing “We Shall Overcome”—has been published in newspapers and magazines across the country. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ted Kennedy’s 31-year-old niece, has become the Senate campaign director. And the pending divorce from his wife, Joan—a separation now almost two years old—has yet to be finalized, keeping it out of the press for now. If the Democratic Party wants a good family man in 1984, it will be able to find a reasonable semblance of that person in Ted Kennedy.   

Rose Kennedy’s sole surviving son shifts around in the cramped rear seat of the four-passenger Lear jet as his pilot struggles to find a hole in a cloud bank that stretches from Long Island to Boston. As his sister, Eunice Shriver, peruses the New York Daily News, 50-year-old Ted Kennedy, his gray hair shorter than it was two years ago, and his face more flushed, alternatingly puffs on a cigar and munches on a handful of pretzels. His attention is divided equally between the conversation, the notecards in his lap reminding him of the praises he will lavish on his mother in less than an hour, and his eldest son Teddy, somewhere below, racing toward Edgartown in the family sailboat. The senator would like to swoop down over him for a quick look, but, at the moment, there’s nothing to see. Instead, he discusses the next presidential campaign.   

“The majority of Democrats,” Kennedy says, pausing to grab another handful of pretzels, leaning forward to be heard over the whine of the twin engines, “say that Reagan is so unbending, why bother to come up with new policies? We ought to be able to just ride through in 1982, and wait for more positive indicators in the fall. Others feel, myself, the Democratic Caucus, that we have to make some adjustments. The studies by the Democratic Campaign Group show that Reagan’s support is falling off, but not necessarily to the benefit of the Democrats. It’s our responsibility to come up with alternatives.”   

Kennedy adjusts himself in his seat, trying to ease the fused vertebrae in his back—the legacy of a 1964 small-plane crash near Springfield that left his right leg three-quarters of an inch shorter than his left. Sipping Coca-Cola, he glances out the window, seeing nothing but clouds, and adds, almost wistfully, “You know, two years ago, we were talking about the same thing.”  

The clouds never break, and by the time the Lear touches down at the Barnstable Municipal Airport, Kennedy has catnapped, amended his notes, and finished his thoughts on the importance of being perceived as having new ideas. “I’d like to believe that the Democratic Party is a party of ideals,” he says. “Presidents Kennedy, Roosevelt, Wilson, they were innovators. We have to have new ideas. It’s the traditional identity of the party. But the fact is that you won’t see much difference between the neo-liberals, those who call themselves that, and the traditional Democrats. They also maintain a relationship to fairness and equity.” One has the sense, listening to him speak, that he is paraphrasing a speech he long ago committed to memory. Particularly when he emphasizes how much effort he feels he’ll have to put into his Senate campaign against neophyte Ray Shamie, a Republican businessman with ties to the John Birch Society, Eunice Shriver doesn’t buy it.   

“I don’t think he needs me,” she says dryly when asked if she’ll campaign.    

“What?” the brother she addresses as Eddie responds with mock indignation.

“You won’t?”   

A car meets them on the runway, and whisks them through an unmarked gateway, where a handful of Kennedy watchers carrying cameras elicit a quick smile and a wave. Minutes later, the car arrives at the compound.   

The compound is a group of cedar-shingled Cape homes that are bound together by high hedges facing Scudder and Irving avenues and a low dune on the beach side. Ethel Kennedy has a home here, and Jack Kennedy’s summer White House remains virtually as it was in the sixties, but Ted’s house is outside the small community, on Squaw Island. The senator’s destination this afternoon is the Ambassador’s House, where his mother has vacationed through 14 different Kennedy—and Fitzgerald—campaigns.   

The buses carrying the senior-citizen politicos have long since arrived, and lunch has already been served and eaten. The rain has held off and administrative assistant Eddy Martin, silver-haired himself, says the only real problem is that “they’re tracking mud all through the house.   

“We’ll clean it up later,” Martin assures Kennedy.   

“Sure you will,” says the senator sardonically.   

An hour later, Kennedy is back in the car, returning to the airport. The afternoon is deemed a tremendous success. A group of Irish schoolchildren spotted by Kennedy when they were touring Boston earlier in the week has serenaded the clan’s matriarch to the tune of “My Wild Irish Rose.” Kennedy’s remarks have been well received, and Rose herself has not only taken the microphone to thank the senior citizens for coming, but has—on the arm of her son—worked the crowd, shaking as many hands as she could convince Ted to take her toward.   

“‘Let’s go here, Ted,’ she’d say. ‘Did I go there? How about over there?'” Kennedy remarks in the car later, smiling and shaking his head. “Then when we got back in side, she asked if everyone got fed. ‘Yes, mother,’ I said. ‘Did I feed them?’ ‘No, mother, I fed them.'” He chuckles. “She wanted to know who paid for it.”   

As he laughs to himself, a woman thrusts her arm through the open window. “See this charm?” she cries, as driver Dick Gallagher comes to a near-stop to avoid tearing her hand off. “It’s one of the original ones!” Kennedy notices the PT 109 ornament, and says it’s great. The arm pulls away, and he turns toward the backseat and says to his deputy press secretary, Melody Miller, “That woman’s sister used to be my brother Jack’s secretary. She sent me all her memorabilia from her office.”   

Miller nods. Thirty-seven years old, she’s worked for the Kennedys since 1964. In fact, she was the last one to leave Bobby Kennedy’s office, turning off the lights, closing the door, and following the men carting the assassinated candidate’s desk and chair down the hall. She knows about memorabilia.   

Gallagher picks up speed, and Kennedy scans the Globe, seeing if a story reporting the murder of a young guard at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library includes the time and location of the wake. “I think I ought to go,” he says, but the information isn’t there. He asks Gallagher, a 32-year-old insurance agent who’s done odd political jobs for the family since he was a teenager, to see if he can find out. By now they’re at the airport. Kennedy steps out, clambers into the plane, and heads back to Washington.   

Gallagher sits in the car for a few minutes without turning the engine on. “I don’t know why he feels he has to go to all the things like that,” he says. “A note, some flowers, would be just as appreciated. I don’t know why he does it.”   

It’s all part of being head of the family.