A Man of the Senate
The young man who entered the Senate in 1962 as one of its least impressive members, a thirtyyear-old fledging whose main recommendation for public office was that he was the president’s brother, had, in the fourteen years since, risen to a level that none of his detractors or even most of his admirers could have foreseen. Ted Kennedy had become a member of the Club—that Senate inner sanctum of mostly senior senators, all of them committee chairmen, where true power was wielded. His brothers John and Bobby had hated the Senate. For them, it was a slow, grinding institution, an institution in which members had to wait their turn to achieve power or prominence—seniority was the congressional coin of the realm—an institution expressly designed by the nation’s constitutional framers to slow or even halt progress rather than speed it. And if the Senate had been designed, in the likely apocryphal words of George Washington, to cool the more heated effusions of the House as a saucer cools hot tea, the Senate itself found ways to prolong that cooling, passing a rule that required a vote of two-thirds of its members to cut off debate, which effectively meant that it took only a third of the membership to stop a bill from coming to a vote. It was in the Senate, that reluctant institution, where Southern Democrats used the filibuster to defeat civil rights legislation again and again and to keep America’s Black citizens in subservience until Lyndon Johnson and a liberal Democratic caucus abetted by moderate Republicans finally got cloture and pried a civil rights act loose. The two older Kennedy brothers preferred executive power—power that could get things done, even as John Kennedy as president quickly realized that the Senate could thwart executive power too. Ted Kennedy, however, had come to the Senate with a different agenda, a different attitude. He was no less desirous than his brothers of getting things done, no less desirous of making a difference. But when he got to the Senate, Ted Kennedy had patience. “It fills you with a heightened sense of purpose,” he had said of the Senate, and as he got his bearings there, as he learned the legislative ropes—ropes that he became especially good at manipulating—he was determined to make the institution work for him.
But there was one other reason that Ted Kennedy became a Senate man: unlike his brothers, who made no bones about using the Senate as a stepping-stone to the presidency, he had no choice.
When Richard Nixon came to power in 1968, Ted Kennedy was in fighting trim—challenging him, parrying him, upholding liberal principles both for his own sake and for Bobby’s, since but for an assassin’s bullet, Bobby, not Nixon, might have been in that Oval Office making policy; creating a shadow presidency, like a parliamentary opposition, waiting to assume power when Nixon faltered; conducting, at times, his own foreign policy, even though that violated political norms; speaking out forcefully against the administration, so forcefully that Republicans took umbrage and felt he overstepped the bounds of civility, which might have been true; and biding, biding his time for his chance to enter the Oval Office himself, even if he was unsure whether he really wanted to occupy that office, though if he did, it would be not to restore Camelot, which he knew was a futile dream, a lost dream, but to rededicate the federal government to what he felt were principles of decency and compassion—the principles for which his brothers had stood.
But in 1976 Ted Kennedy surrendered his chance to become president. Though he had ruminated on the possibility after Senator George McGovern’s historic landslide loss to Nixon in 1972, commissioning polls as early as 1973, and though he would boast to young staffer Richard Burke about the results of those polls and asked Burke what he was hearing on his campus (Burke was still a student), and though there were discussions of a possible candidacy, the deliberations had ended in September 1974, when Ted announced that he would not be running. At the time he cited family considerations. His son, Ted Jr., had recently had his leg amputated to prevent the spread of bone cancer, and the shadow of the deaths of John and Robert, both assassinated, always hung over the family and any possible candidacy. When Ted discussed a run with his sister Jean and her husband Steve Smith in the presence of Ted’s mother, Rose, and of Kennedy family friend and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Schlesinger said that Rose immediately shrank, and Jean was “somber and silent.” Schlesinger noted that the family seemed “deeply and genuinely opposed to Ted’s running,” but that Ted’s brother-in-law “seems to think that Ted would be best for the country and that his candidacy may become inevitable and is fatalistic about the risks.” As for Ted’s own fatalism, Schlesinger thought that Ted “shifts according to the time of day from one of these positions to the other.”
Ted had other concerns besides his son’s health and his personal safety. His estranged wife, Joan, was an alcoholic who was often in recovery. It was questionable whether she could survive a campaign. And there was the ever-lingering issue of the automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island, in which a young woman passenger had drowned when Ted drove off a narrow bridge and then failed to report the accident until the next morning, ten hours later. As the fifth anniversary of the accident approached in July 1974, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer were all preparing new investigations of Chappaquiddick. “The hard truth is, as can be attested by almost any reporter who travels the country,” wrote New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, “that there is a huge reservoir of doubt and resentment about what Mr. Kennedy called ‘the tragedy’ at Chappaquiddick, particularly among those who had given their allegiance to Spiro Agnew,” Nixon’s vice president who had been driven from office in disgrace for having accepted bribes, “and Richard Nixon,” who had been driven from office for shenanigans in which he used the government to target opponents, “or both, and those who had seen both Mr. Agnew and Mr. Nixon brought low for ‘cover-ups’ rather like those of which they suspected Edward Kennedy.” If Ted ran, Wicker suspected, the emphasis would be not on the misdeeds of Nixon and Agnew but on Ted’s alleged misdeeds at Chappaquiddick. Ted, it was reported, didn’t want to subject himself to that kind of scrutiny again. As Kennedy family adviser Milton Gwirtzman put it: “He is unwilling to take the personal risk that Chappaquiddick will defeat him.”
But for a man as attuned to politics as Ted was, there was also a political element in his calculations: He understood how the temper of the country had changed since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and the heyday of the Great Society, and he recognized that America might no longer be receptive to his brand of politics. Years later he would write that while his supporters and Kennedy acolytes looked at the possibility of a Kennedy restoration romantically, he was too pragmatic to try to attempt one. “The eras that shaped them,” he would write of his brothers, “had passed. The present era was quite different in mood, in collective experience and in the challenges the nation faced.” Ted understood reactionary populism because he had confronted it during those antibusing demonstrations. He understood that the old New Deal coalition had fractured, that working-class white Americans and Black Americans were often at loggerheads, and that the liberal prescriptions of the past, however much he continued to believe in them and in the morality that he thought underlay them, had lost their appeal.
Those Democrats who did contend for the party’s nomination after Ted’s renunciation were a mixed but largely pallid group of retreads and opportunists hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Among them were the liberal Arizona congressman Morris “Mo” Udall, neither a retread nor an opportunist but not a heavyweight either; the longtime Washington senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson; Indiana senator Birch Bayh, who had saved Ted’s life in the 1964 plane crash by risking his own life to pull Ted from the burning wreckage; Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp; former North Carolina governor and current Duke University president Terry Sanford; the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace; and Ted’s own brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver. None of them especially fired up the Democratic Party stalwarts who saw in Gerald Ford’s reelection campaign an opportunity to seize the presidency after Nixon’s Watergate scandal had soiled it, and many of them still pined for Ted, even after the race began and despite Ted’s demurrals. “Teddy is the one who turns them on—the single incandescent presence, excepting only George Wallace, in the lackluster Democratic Presidential politics of 1976,” Newsweek opined in June 1975.
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