The Kennedys’ lost luster

The Kennedy legend has lost a lot of its luster.

Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the Kennedys were American royalty. That was partially due to their success and celebrity, their good looks and wealth, and the tragedy that stalked them and often forced them to pay a dear price, leaving the family and millions of Americans in tears.

But those days are gone, and that feeling has largely faded. There are no Kennedys in prominent national roles, and none on the horizon. The legend drew to a close 10 years ago, a decade after a promising new start came to a sudden, and sadly typical, end, and 40 years after a tragic event clouded their legacy.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal lion from Massachusetts, died on Aug. 25, 2009. Brain cancer felled Ted Kennedy at 77, ending a political career that lasted far longer than his two older brothers.

I recently read “True Compass,” Kennedy’s posthumous autobiography. It is a surprisingly readable book, filled with political tales, humor and pathos. Sen. Kennedy reflected on his life and career, his family and their triumphs and tragedies, and his own successes and failures, both professional and personal.

He agreed to write the book before he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the brain. It was the same cancer that would kill Sen. John McCain nine years later to the day. Although Kennedy was a liberal Democrat and McCain a conservative Republican, they often worked together, back in an era when politicians were willing to put country over party, the nation’s good ahead of fleeting political advantage.

Ted Kennedy’s life, both public and private, caused people to take firm stances for or against him. Some adored his stances for health care, civil rights, abortion rights and the environment, while others disagreed with him on those issues, while also opposing him on school busing, the ongoing struggles in Northern Ireland, gay and lesbian rights and myriad other stances.

His personal life also made him a target. Like his father Joe Kennedy, a millionaire investor and onetime ambassador to Great Britain, and his brothers, he enjoyed beautiful women and a fast-paced lifestyle.

While the elder Kennedy and his sons Joe Jr., John and Bobby lived, loved and died before their private behavior became public, Ted Kennedy lived in an era when his faults were front and center. As he partied, pursued women and gained weight, cameras clicked away and tongues clucked.

His greatest personal failure, the death of Mary Jo Kopeneche in a driving accident in Chappaquiddick Island on July 18, 1969 — another anniversary this year — remains the largest shadow on his legacy. In his book, Kennedy sticks to the story he crafted with a team of advisers after the fatal accident, claiming he was merely giving the young blonde a ride back to her motel from a beach party on the isle when his car plunged off a narrow bridge.

Kennedy said he tried to save her, but admits he has no excuse for abandoning her in the sunken car for hours before contacting authorities. It cost Kopeneche her life, and very possibly cost him a chance to be president.

He did try once, running against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. It’s revealing that in the book, his animosity for Carrie is evident, even as he offers kinder words for Presidents Lyndon Johnson (a bitter foe of his brother Bobby), Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama.

Carter trailed Kennedy badly in polls in 1979, but vowed to “whip” Kennedy, which he did, in part due to Kennedy’s stumbling start, including a landslide loss in the 1980 Iowa Caucuses. He recovered to run well in the closing months, winning the South Dakota primary, among others, but fell short and never mounted another run for the presidency, although he did ponder one in 1984, he said in the book, only to be dissuaded by his children.

Instead, Ted Kennedy settled in to become a powerful and effective senator, winning nine elections to the Senate. That was in marked contrast to his brothers. JFK served eight years in the same Senate seat before he won the presidency, and Bobby, who unlike his brothers represented New York, served just three and a half years before he was assassinated during his quest for the White House.

John F. Kennedy Jr. might have wound up in the Senate and even the White House, had he lived. He was merely 38 when the airplane he was piloting spun into the Atlantic Ocean on July 16, 1999, killing the president’s son as well as his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her sister Lauren. I well recall that grim weekend as the search found no evidence of his small plane, and the growing realization of yet another Kennedy tragedy.

Airplane disasters killed Joe Jr. during a highly dangerous World War II mission in 1944, a sister, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy in 1948 and JFK Jr. in 1999. Ted Kennedy suffered a broken back in a June 19, 1964, plane crash that killed two people.

“There are more of us than there is trouble,” Bobby Kennedy said then. “The Kennedys intend to stay in public life. Good luck is something you make, and bad luck is something you endure.”

Bullets also left a deep wound on the family and country. President Kennedy and Bobby were shot and killed by assassins, deaths that shaped American politics and helped create the legend of the Kennedy Curse. Ted Kennedy admits he feared an assassin’s attack, and George McGovern told me that he once was seated outside sipping a drink with Ted when a bodyguard hurried them indoors, fearing Kennedy was too attractive a target.

There are still Kennedys in public life, led by Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, a grandson of Bobby and Ethel. But none have the high profile of the earlier generation. The media and the public don’t follow them, and they don’t generate the love, devotion, passion — and hatred, resentment and disdain — that Jack, Bobby, and Ted did for decades.

That died in 2009, along with Ted Kennedy.

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