Kennedy's Life -- and 48 Years of the Party's -- Convention by Convention

An unexpected appearance, Sen Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) spoke out forcefully in support of Sen. Barack Obama at the DNC Monday evening.Video by AP
By David S. Broder
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 25 -- When Ted Kennedy made his dramatic appearance before the Democratic National Convention delegates Monday night, the ovation he received was more than a personal tribute. It was a celebration of almost half a century of his history at these gatherings.

Going back to 1960, he has been a vivid presence at these conclaves, just as he was Monday night when the party long dominated by the Kennedy clan paid tribute to the elder statesman now stricken with brain cancer. Only twice has he missed a convention -- in 1964, when he was recovering from injuries suffered in a plane crash, and four years later, after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination -- and both times the Kennedy family was a subtext to what went on.

In 1960 in Los Angeles, when his oldest brother was nominated for president, Ted was working the floor, followed by TV cameras as he dragooned the last votes needed to achieve a first-ballot victory. That was a moment of triumph for both the family and the party.

In 1964, they had been divorced, a breakup that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the succession of Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ ruled Robert Kennedy out of consideration for vice president, and Bobby brought the Atlantic City convention to tears with a speech saluting his late brother and, not very subtly, criticizing Johnson. Four years later, with Ted Kennedy absent, the divisions that erupted in Chicago sank the nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

In 1972, Kennedy lavished praise on George McGovern but limited his political participation to a veto he exercised on McGovern's first choice for vice president, Boston's then-mayor, Kevin White. It precipitated a fiasco: Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, McGovern's backup choice, was forced off the ticket for failing to disclose a history of mental illness, and by the time a Kennedy brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was recruited to replace him, Richard Nixon was out of reach.

Then things got worse. Nixon's Watergate scandal and forced resignation helped Jimmy Carter win in 1976. Two years later, when the Democrats held a mini-convention in Memphis, Kennedy's full-throated speech capped a liberal-labor rebellion against the austere economic policies of the administration.

Kennedy carried those issues into a challenge to the incumbent president in the primaries of 1980, only to see Carter trump him by exploiting the Iran hostage crisis. When Democrats reached Madison Square Garden that summer, Kennedy had enough delegates to stir trouble over convention rules, but Carter prevailed. And Kennedy frustrated the president -- and many other Democrats -- by going into a public sulk and dodging Carter's frantic efforts to signal an end to their fight with an embrace on the podium.

But before that, Kennedy gave a speech that summed up the themes of his already-18-year-long Senate career, not knowing that another 28 years would pass and another convention would summon him. In that speech, Kennedy spoke of the values that "are the heart of our tradition and the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land. We dare not forsake that tradition. We cannot let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history."

That speech, delivered by a defeated challenger, concluded with what may be the best remembered of all Kennedy's lines: "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end," he said. "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

In 1984 and in all subsequent years, Kennedy, while resisting pressure to run for president again, spoke to the conventions that nominated Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton and two of Kennedy's Massachusetts friends, Michael S. Dukakis and John F. Kerry. The rhetoric may have been less memorable, but the themes were always the same: civil rights, workers' causes and, most of all, the need for national health insurance. Each nominee inspired Kennedy's hopes, but only Clinton delivered a victory.

This year, Kennedy made himself a major player again, delivering an early and impassioned endorsement of Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton. So when the convention opened Monday night with a filmed salute to Kennedy and praise from his niece, Caroline, there was a sense that more than an individual was being honored.

Despite the rigorous radiation and chemotherapy treatment he has been undergoing for his tumor, which was diagnosed in May, Kennedy was in full voice. Standing without support at the lectern, he launched into a brief speech, almost every sentence of which was greeted with cheers.

"For me, this is a season of hope," he declared, wrapping into a single phrase his optimism about what an Obama victory would mean and about his own future. "I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the Senate" offering support to the new president.

As always, Kennedy spoke of "the cause of my life," the delivery of "decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege."

In his final paragraph, he paraphrased both his brother's 1961 inaugural address and his own 1980 convention speech. "This November," he said, "the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama and for you and me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."

He stepped back from the lectern, receiving a wave of cheers and applause from delegates who did not know whether they would hear his voice again.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company