Over the past 40 years, how many American fathers with great ambitions for their sons have not spent at least a moment or two pondering the paternal methodology of the late Joseph P. Kennedy of Boston, Massachusetts: three sons (four, if one includes the eldest, killed in World War II), each of whom in turn he seems to have slated to become nothing less fulfilling of a classic father’s dream than president of the United States?
How does one go about daring so high as this man? For one of these sons did, of course, achieve his father’s ambition for him—albeit for too shockingly short a time—after which a not insignificant proportion of the public came to believe that each of the other two in turn was almost certainly slated, as well as entitled, to follow. What did follow the original horror of assassination in Dallas, of course, was all but unimaginable: a very public act of cowardice on the part of the younger son and a second assassin’s bullet for the elder, who would almost certainly have become that year’s Democratic candidate for the presidency and very likely the second Kennedy occupant of the White House.
Leaving aside the thought of what had to have been the old man’s ultimate pain and sorrow—made even worse by being locked in silence by a stroke as he had become before his own passing—what could have been the secret of his paternal power? Throughout this process of ambitions realized and ambitions thwarted, he had played some crucial part in the fact that the subjects of his paternal striving were being surrounded and cosseted by a circle of loyal and gifted sycophants and mouthpieces: servitors and companions who would prove to be so usefully sensitive to the rapidly changing winds of social and cultural, and hence political, fashion that by the 1960s were commencing all too unheeded to blow through the country like a tsunami. (Without the help of such as these, for instance, how could Bobby Kennedy in only a few short years and with nary a gossipy reminder or malevolent backward look have been wafted from membership on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s staff to a position of leftist sainthood?) All this surely took a great deal of wealth, not only for the expense of so ambitiously speedy an undertaking, but also for the assertion of style and personal ease and authority required.
Not to mention boyish “scrapes” to pay for—such as, one might suppose, getting his youngest, Teddy, readmitted to Harvard after he was caught cheating on an exam, not to mention helping to scrape up the handful of votes in Chicago that were required for the election of Jack to the presidency in 1960. Wealth was something Joseph P. Kennedy certainly had a great deal of. Yet surely by itself, a fortune, no matter how vast, would not have been enough to provide him what he so evidently desired. It would surely also have taken an almost unimaginable amount of fire—not to say iron—in the belly.
That iron has long since turned to dust, at least as far as Joseph Kennedy himself is concerned. And now the last, and in many ways the least, of his sons has died, at an imaginable, if not what we nowadays consider a really ripe, old age—for which, one may suppose, he would have taken at least some small comfort. If the ambition of an American patriarch to convert his family into a kind of hereditary political dynasty is a sin—and it is, of course, two sins, one of ingratitude and one of impiety—the man was way, way more than adequately punished for it.
But what of us? It is plausible to think that Teddy Kennedy’s death on August 25 marks the end of any notable Kennedyan influence (and perhaps, one day soon, any Kennedyan presence at all) on the American political scene. Such a great deal of water has flowed over the national dam—so much warfare, military and political; so many disasters, natural and man-made; so many generations, actual and culturally procreated; so much wealth and ease combined with so many causes for social anxiety—since Jack Kennedy first ascended to the White House in January of 1961. And yet the outpouring of remembrances of the man who came to be known (originally, no doubt, through the inspiration of some truly savvy staffer) as the Lion of the Senate has yet again raised the wider issue of the historic influence of the whole Kennedy “dynasty.” Partly this is because mourning tends to beget longer memories, and the mourning for Teddy has, of course, been widespread and voluminous. But perhaps it is also that the name Kennedy has down through the years become a kind of automatic collective association.
Teddy himself did not quite fit the suit of chivalrous armor his brothers seemed to wear with such ease. He became a very active, popular, and long-serving senator—indeed, the third longest serving in Senate history. His brothers, both of whom were also senators but only briefly (both served for only one term), took little interest in the chamber’s affairs, since for them service in that body was little more than a necessary stopping-off point on their way to the presidency.
It seems likely that Teddy’s determination to become a Senate potentate was not so much the result of his having discovered his true calling as his recognition that after the scandal of Chappaquiddick—where he left a young woman to drown after having drunkenly driven off a bridge and then ran off to get someone to help cover up what he had done—the presidency would be beyond his grasp. In short, it was not the horror of the assassinations of his older brothers that freed Teddy from the Kennedy decree but rather the all-too-visible effect on his character of being the over-cosseted baby of a large and evidently boisterous family.
The honors to be bestowed in Teddy’s memory—streets and institutions and airports named for him, television documentaries about his life and career to be broadcast, fat biographies written—are no doubt already in the works. Moreover, there is always the possibility that one day he might be treated seriously as a political phenomenon by someone with a genuinely interesting historical imagination. In death, he finally had his moment of national celebration. Still, thoughts about the three brothers in order of succession, Jack to Bobby to Teddy, keep wafting in the air somewhere between the scent of the funeral baked meats and the perfume of incense. For whether the presence of each brother on the American scene was itself a cause or a symptom of the changes in American political life over the past half century, the effect was consequential.
In the case of Jack’s presidency, through the -offices of a distinguished political commentator, his widow managed to fix a permanent association between it and a place called Camelot, where never had talk been so brilliant, men so charming, women so beautiful, the air so filled with music, the White House and its surroundings so filled with stars. This was an odd claim for a presidency that, in the very, very brief time allotted to it, had managed to have its president dismissed by the Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, sponsor a disaster at the Bay of Pigs, face down Soviet missiles in Cuba, send the Army into Vietnam on what was said to be a three-month expedition, stir the hostility of an increasingly militant black leadership, and in addition get entangled in a couple of secret scandals better left unmentioned. Yet Jacqueline Kennedy was not wrong in her glamorization. For it was first the Kennedy candidacy and then the Kennedy presidency that brought the bien-pensants and Beautiful People, not to mention the Hollywood-style celebrities, into the daily political give-and-take of this nation. From the first stirrings of Jack’s presidential career, he had surrounded himself with them, seduced them, and used them. This historic development proved even more meaningful in its trivializing effect on the American body politic than our having been so airily waved into Vietnam without proper political or military preparation.
As for Bobby, his electoral career added a significant element to the Kennedy political estate by tapping into what had become roiling passions about race and poverty. To the beautiful people in the Kennedyan retinue were now added a group of considerably less stylish and deeply earnest young intellectuals (and later the assembly of the anti-Vietnam young), and they would devise and direct antipoverty projects in his name.
Teddy might have been the beneficiary of the grand coalition of his brothers’ constituencies. But in his responsibility for Mary Jo Kopechne’s death and in the embarrassing effects of his own pleasure-seeking, as in his gamboling with a son and a nephew on a night that led to a rape charge for the nephew, he proved impossible to romanticize in the manner his brothers were. Of course, in the year before his death, he would be romanticized in other ways, and false ones, as romantic character descriptions always are. He was, we were told, wonderfully friendly and accommodating to his political opponents, a peculiar salute to a man who deployed surpassing ugliness of a new sort in his successful effort to deny Robert Bork a seat on the -Supreme Court. At the end of his days, those who have read his memoir tell us, he was deeply proud of the slanderous account he gave of Bork’s views and -character, so much so that he regretted that the -circumstances surrounding his nephew’s arrest and trial made a repeat of his performance in the case of -Clarence Thomas’s nomination impossible.
Perhaps the most frequently cited of his virtues was his great compassion for the poor—always somehow granted extra credit in the case of someone who is himself wealthy. But if something more than half a century’s worth of experience can be said to count for anything, neither adding power to the unions nor the cost of raising minimum pay to employers is the path of greatest kindness to the poor.
Ted Kennedy did not live the life of a great man, and he will not be long remembered except as the historical appendage of his brothers; even the televising of his funeral had less to do with his own legacy than with the enduring power of his last name. And yet can it not be said, in Ted Kennedy’s own final defense, that the least likely, the least driven, weakest, and surely the least clever of Joe’s sons was the one who actually achieved the greatest fulfillment of that insatiable and cynical old man’s heedless ambition?