By Vince Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009
When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated while running for president, his 37-year-old baby brother's knees buckled under the weight of it all.
The grief, with three brothers now dead before their time. The family legacy of power, politics and service, now placed on his unsteady shoulders.
So Edward M. Kennedy did what he knew -- and loved. He took to the sea. For six weeks afterward, he drifted, cutting himself off from everything.
He would often just lie in his sloop and stare at the sky, a man dislocated and disconnected, according to family friends. He was oblivious for a time to his wife, Joan, and his children, unable to articulate his grief.
Unable to find peace.
A year later came the dark waters of Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy driving off a bridge, escaping death while his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. The incident left a blemish on the Kennedy family legacy that many people thought would never be erased.
The accident occurred the same weekend America landed men on the moon, a stirring fulfillment of his brother John's challenge eight years earlier. The Boston Globe played the Chappaquiddick story higher than the moon landing on its front page.
The youngest Kennedy son was a man whose life was a patchwork of just such startling contradictions:
The callow youth who was kicked out of Harvard for cheating, only to be given an honorary degree there 60 years later.
The unwavering liberal icon who forged working relationships and warm friendships with Senate uber-Republicans such as Utah's Orrin Hatch, Wyoming's Mike Enzi and Arizona's John McCain.
The reckless, hard-drinking thrill-seeker prowling Georgetown bars at night while accumulating an unmatched record of achievement in the Senate during the day.
The straying husband but devoted father and uncle.
At the end of a life as paradoxical as Ted Kennedy's, pocked by tragedy and filled with high achievement and low melodrama, the central question that emerges when taking its measure is this: Is his a story of redemption? Did he somehow make amends for all his early sins? Did the last son of Camelot finally rise above it all and fulfill the promise of the brothers who came before?
Vice President Biden, who was close to Ted Kennedy when the two served in the Senate, has his own answers, believing that his friend and colleague did much more than outlive his flaws.
"He made up for them," Biden recounted to "Good Morning America" just hours after Kennedy's passing was announced Tuesday. "Teddy Kennedy constantly improved. Teddy Kennedy constantly got better. . . . Teddy's enthusiasm for life and for the opportunity to make things better" never diminished, he said. "I sat with him for 36 years. Every day and every year he grew. It was a greater amount of passion, not less.
"Every mistake he made in his life, he made a lie out of the mistake by the way he lived the rest of his life," Biden said.
Ironically, it was Chappaquiddick that allowed Kennedy to become his own creation, to separate himself from the giant shadow of his brothers. Kennedy lost his leadership role in the Senate and began working in its nooks and crannies, rather than on its stages, forging the one-on-one relationships that are crucial to success in that clubby world. Chappaquiddick peeled away for a time the necessity of expending so much energy upholding the Kennedy family's pomp and veneer as the dutiful son, allowing him to redirect that energy toward making laws.
The work -- the day-to-day grind, the laserlike focus -- as friends, colleagues and those who observed him have said, is how a man set adrift found his way back.
On Friday, Michael Barone, political columnist and co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics," recounted a story about Kennedy's work ethic.
"A couple of years ago, I saw Kennedy leaving the Senate chamber with a couple other senators. I said, 'Senator Kennedy, you've been doing this for 40 years. Why don't you take it easy?' He smiled and laughed and said, 'I have to go to this meeting.'
"Some people consider what he did or failed to do at Chappaquiddick was unforgivable," Barone said. "Others believe that he more than compensated for his errors by working hard and effectively for the causes he believed in."
At the heart of his drive for redemption during the next 40 years was a simple, steadfast symbol: The Bag.
Every afternoon, the battered black briefcase was packed at the senator's office with memos, invitations, papers to sign, research to read, mail to open. Staffers used to treat it as if it were alive.
"The Bag is leaving now," they'd say.
And every morning Kennedy returned The Bag with everything in it finished.
"I don't think people understand how hard he worked," said Bob Shrum, who has long written speeches for Kennedy. "I'm not a big memo writer, but lots of people are, and he would take home this giant bag of memos . . . every night. And they would come back with annotations every morning. Every single one."
But his problems lingered. In 1991, when Kennedy's nephew William Kennedy Smith was accused of rape after a night out drinking with his uncle and Patrick Kennedy, the senator asked Hatch for help in rescuing his reputation.
"Ted came to me when the media was all over him because of what they considered to be his less-than-desirable image," Hatch said in an interview. "And I helped him."
Hatch fielded requests for comment from reporters at the time, but warned his friend frankly that he had to stop drinking if he were truly to start down the road to redemption.
Then there was his second wife, Vicki.
Their paths had crossed for 22 years before they started dating in 1991. It was an old-fashioned courtship, full of flowers and romance, friends say. Ted won Vicki over by lavishing attention on her children. He would sometimes arrive at her house before she got home from the office, and he was often on the floor making animal sounds with her two young girls.
"Vicki helped him so much. She was the one person who did it," said Len Paolillo, who met Ted and Vicki while working with the senator on education issues as an executive with the National Education Association. "Her sincerity saved him. The way they interacted together just felt good."
Ted proposed at the opera.
"When he decided to marry Vicki," Hatch remembers, "I was at a big fundraiser and got a call. They said, 'Ted Kennedy's on the phone and he sounds very agitated.' I said, 'What's the matter, Ted?'
" 'Oh, nothing, I just wanted you to be the first person to know. I'm going to get married.' "
Hatch told him it was exactly what he needed.
It may be that Kennedy's own imperfections gave him a greater tolerance for the inevitability of imperfection, an appreciation for the gray areas and the necessity of baby steps when walking toward the promised land.
He always kept open the possibility of forgiveness for his opponents, perhaps because he so badly needed it himself.
Many of the people among the crowds of thousands gathered along the procession route Thursday in Massachusetts, and the tens of thousands more who lined up for hours to pay their respects at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, shared that view.
"Seems like because of the tragedies in his own life, he could relate to the tragedy in other people's lives," said Jill Grossberg, who was spending her 42nd anniversary in line with her husband at the library Thursday night. "Sometimes he was very unpopular, but he never wavered."
Her husband, Bernard, said Kennedy's own foibles gave hope to other people that they could transcend their own. "If he could get through everything he's gotten through in his life, it made it easier for other people to get through theirs."
Many in the crowd expressed an intimate appreciation for Ted the person rather than Ted the politician, or Ted the keeper of the Kennedy family flame. The tributes in Boston were for a single man, not a mystique.
"He took care of the sick and the poor," said the Rev. Jack Ahearn, onetime pastor of the parish where Kennedy was baptized. "He's done something for all of us at one time or another."
Kennedy, with his lifelong commitment to changing the world one life at a time, would probably have appreciated those sentiments.
In a now famous speech at Harvard, Kennedy spoke frankly about his need for redemption in the eyes of the country.
"I recognize my own shortcomings," he said. "I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them. Unlike my brothers, I have been given the length of years and time. And as I have approached my 60th birthday, I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a third of a century."
"It was really three yards and a cloud of dust with him," said his son Patrick.
Melody Miller, a longtime aide for Kennedy, summed it up this way: "He wasn't perfect, he'd be the first to tell you that. But he worked harder and tried harder than any man I have ever seen."
Bzdek is the author of "The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled."