By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009
She walked behind her husband's coffin Thursday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library with the same single-minded purpose that friends say she has projected for the past year: unwaveringly forward-looking, no public tears, smiling warmly at friends and guarding her husband's surroundings until the end.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy has been known as the woman who rescued Ted Kennedy 18 years ago -- saved him from his drinking and womanizing, saved him from himself, saved his career. But from now on, she will be remembered as the widow who gracefully managed the last days of one the most revered -- and controversial -- political icons of the last four decades.
"What she accomplished and enabled him to do in the last 15 months is more than most people do in a lifetime," says Boston friend Heather Campion. "He started and finished his memoir. Everyone who wanted to see Ted in the past few months was able to do so in a meaningful way. She juggled very aggressive cancer treatment to prolong his life, and she opened her house to the entire family -- and cooked the meals. She never lost a sense of hope."
Said another Kennedy friend on the condition of anonymity: "She was inspirational. She was vigilant in making sure that his remaining time was spent comfortably with friends and family in fellowship. She didn't want him isolated."
It was a remarkable scene Thursday, watching this relative newcomer to the Kennedy tribe in her simple black suit and pearls leading the pack of 85 family members, along with Kennedy's sister, Jean Smith, from the house in Hyannis Port, Mass., to the library. There has been much speculation about where Vicki Kennedy will find her place now that her husband is gone.
A lawyer, she has been mentioned as a possible successor to him in the Senate, but she has told friends that she is not interested. She has made her home at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port in recent years. But it is a house with a history and much sentiment attached to it, and not likely to be her permanent home. CNN has reported that her husband was interested in turning the property into a museum. She and Sen. Kennedy bought a fancy house in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood, where friends suspect she will return.
Intimates have downplayed recent reports that she had been in a push-pull with Joseph Kennedy III, Robert Kennedy's oldest son, over who had the final word on Teddy's care. She did. By all accounts, she was his soul mate, closest political adviser and, after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, his primary caregiver. Long interested in medical advocacy, Vicki called doctors all over the country, anxious to try the newest cutting-edge treatments.
When it became clear in the spring that they were running out of options, Vicki helped her husband say goodbye to those closest to him, and together they planned the funeral. There was a steady stream of friends and family through the house every day, eating her meals and reminiscing and singing Irish songs with her husband. She brought his beloved sailboat to a dock close to the house so he could be brought on board in a wheelchair. She chose who would be allowed to see him so frail in his last days.
Vicki was a 37-year-old lawyer and divorced single mom when she re-met Ted at family party. Her Louisiana family had known him for years, and she briefly interned in his office as a young woman. Her father, Edmund, a retired judge, helped deliver his state for vice presidential candidate John F. Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic convention and remained close to the Kennedys.
Ted was at a low point in 1991 when Vicki came back into the picture. A particularly unflattering portrait of him as hard-drinking and juvenile was emerging at the sensational rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith. After years of public carousing, Ted's popularity in his own state was plummeting to the point where he was in danger of losing his seat to a Mormon businessman named Mitt Romney.
As Ted was preparing to testify at Smith's Florida trial in late 1991, he felt compelled to publicly take responsibility for his own behavior: "I recognize my own shortcomings," he said in an extraordinary speech at Harvard's Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government. "I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."
Sitting unobtrusively in the audience was Vicki, whom he had been quietly dating for four months. The couple married in July 1992, went from their honeymoon straight to the Democratic convention, and have been inseparable ever since.
"The two shared a tremendous Catholic faith," says Campion. "I think that's what got her through this."