Edward Kennedy -- with him passes the magic
EDWARD Moore Kennedy's death from brain cancer at the age of seventy-seven brings to an end a career that consistently occupied centre stage in American politics. Kennedy was one of those men fortunate enough to be part of the political dynasty set in place by Joseph P. Kennedy, the affluent businessman who once served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's ambassador to the Court of St. James in London.
Paradoxically, Edward Kennedy's life was lived in the midst of tragedy brought on by high ambition. The eldest of his brothers, Joe, lost his life in action as an air force pilot in the Second World War. Joe was the brother who should have been president if their father had had his way. That ambition was then transferred to John Kennedy, who eventually made it to Congress and the Senate, and then to the White House. JFK's inauguration in 1961 was verily the rise to prominence of America's most famous political dynasty, for it would herald the arrival of Joseph Kennedy's third son Robert on the scene, as attorney general.
But then things began to fall apart. The centre could not hold. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963. The next year, Robert Kennedy sought and won a New York senate seat and was soon being touted as a future president. That moment nearly came, and then went, in 1968. RFK seemed poised to win the Democratic nomination for president and might have gone on to win the White House had not an assassin put a bullet through his head in Los Angeles in June 1968. That was tragedy at its peak.
Despite that, some in the Democratic Party thought Edward Kennedy could be convinced to run in his brother's place. He was right in saying no, for as the last surviving Kennedy he was now officially the family patriarch.
But early in 1969, even as Richard Nixon prepared to take charge as America's new president, Edward Kennedy, Ted as he was known by and large, beat a veteran Democratic senator to become the party whip. Almost instantly, people were talking of a presidential race between him and Nixon in 1972.
The gods, of course, had other things in store for him. In summer, accompanied by a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne in a car, he left a party. Soon the car was in the water. Kennedy staggered out of the vehicle, went home and did not inform the police until hours later of the tragedy. It was then that Kopechne's body was recovered from inside the car in the water. Kennedy's presidential ambitions went up in smoke.
And yet Ted Kennedy survived that enormity of a tragedy. He was, in a sense, a comeback kid. He had come through a plane crash with an injured back in 1964. He had seen his brothers die in unnatural manner, two of them at the hands of assassins. One of his sisters had been in an asylum all her life. His son suffered from debilitating health. A time would come when his wife Joan would leave him.
After 1969, he set out to rebuild his career. In the senate, to which he had been elected in 1962 at age thirty (the seat had been vacated by JFK when he was elected president), he sponsored legislation on issues that exercised the imagination in America. It was always the social causes -- civil liberties, medicare, et cetera -- he focused on. But, of course, there was that occasional beat in the heart, which told him he needed to be president. He sought the Democratic Party nomination in 1980, against incumbent President Jimmy Carter. It ended in disaster, for him and for Carter. Kennedy did not get the nomination; and Carter was not re-elected. It was the beginning of the Reagan era. But, at the Democratic convention, Kennedy captured the public imagination once again, through a soaring concession speech that invoked Tennyson's Ulysses "one equal temper of heroic hearts […] to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."
Edward Kennedy's death is not the passing of a torch from one generation of Kennedys to another, for his nephews and nieces have never been able to match him and his brothers in the beauty of their grace and the intensity of their ambitions. From that perspective, therefore, Kennedy's death is the end of a dynasty, the likes of which may never be again.
The magic that once underlined the Kennedy name (in 1962, Ted Kennedy's rival for the senate seat taunted him, "If your name had been Edward Moore rather than Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke") dies with him. Massachusetts loses a callow young politician who over the decades graduated to a veteran, deeply respected senator. Americans do not have in their midst any more the good, handsome man who chose the right causes to fight for (he moved heaven and earth in 1971 in defence of Bangladesh) and went all the way to uphold those causes.
In life, Edward Kennedy epitomised, for all his flaws, the values that underpinned life. In death, he becomes a hearkening back to an era that was as substantive in meaning as it was vibrant in an expression of its demands.