By Vince Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009
BOSTON -- If siblings are fortunate, they share bonds that go far beyond their bloodlines. Though it may seem strange to say, given the many tragedies that existed alongside their triumphs, the Kennedy brothers were among the fortunate ones.
At least in that sibling way.
Theirs is a story of a unique American brotherhood, their bond and their lives so intimately woven into the history of a nation.
And Edward M. Kennedy, the youngest of them, lived to finish their collective story.
In his last days he spoke of looking forward to resting beside his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery.
"Ted Kennedy has gone home now," President Obama said in his eulogy Saturday, "guided by his faith and by the light of those that he has loved and lost. At last he is with them once more."
Former senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), a onetime aide to John F. Kennedy who was instrumental in the birth of the Peace Corps, saw the Kennedy brothers as variations on a theme.
"It's the same spirit in different forms," he said.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) offered a similar observation about the famous brotherhood at a Friday night memorial for Ted Kennedy.
"John Kennedy inspired our America," Dodd said. "Robert challenged our America. Our Teddy changed America."
Ted Kennedy took his brothers' violent deaths and tried to alchemize something positive out of them, something more than the powerful symbolism of their loss.
What John and Bobby dreamed, he tried to build, law by law.
He made his first speech in the Senate, shortly after John died, in support of the civil rights bill the president had proposed. His first big personal victory came from fulfilling John's dream of giving all those who wanted to immigrate to the United States an equal chance, eliminating in 1965 the quotas that strongly favored Northern Europeans.
After Bobby's death, Ted Kennedy took over his committee assignments and carried on his role as the tribune of the disenfranchised. Bobby had broadened the Kennedy legacy into a deep compassion for the underprivileged, and his younger brother saw it as a sacred duty to continue the work.
In a famous address after Bobby's assassination, Ted Kennedy said: "Like my brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard. Sustained by the memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, excellence and to courage that distinguished their lives."
"The man never quit," said a longtime friend, retired senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.). "He was indefatigable. He was a fighter."
Ted Kennedy sat in John's seat his entire career in the Senate, refusing to move up front when his seniority allowed him to.
Little brothers can be that way.
Edward M. Kennedy was the baby of the family, the youngest of nine children, the sole survivor of four brothers.
As so often noted, there are two sides to being the youngest. What older siblings haven't complained about the baby getting away with things they never could? What baby sister or brother hasn't sometimes feared not measuring up to the older sibling?
Growing up in Brookline, Mass., and Boston, the Kennedy brothers staked out roles that would last for the rest of their lives. Joe Jr., the oldest brother, was the family's star, John its wit, Bobby its soul and Ted its laugh.
Joe was the most combative, John the most reflective, Bobby the most intense and Teddy the most agreeable. Joe lapped up politics; John, history; Bobby, religion; and Ted the company of others.
"Since Bobby was less outgoing, he and his father tended to have quiet conversations," the Kennedys' nurse Louella Hennessey once said. "Even at 13 and 14, Bobby was a deep-thinking boy and very close to his mother. Then Teddy would come in and the atmosphere in the room would completely change, for Teddy was like the sunshine, lighting up everything in sight and keeping his father young."
The competition among the older brothers was fierce. John and Joe once raced around the block on their bicycles in opposite directions, coming directly at each other at the finish. Neither brother was willing to peel off, so the two crashed head on. Joe walked away uninjured; John required 28 stitches.
But the four Kennedy sisters insulated Ted from those battles.
"While it seemed I could never do anything right with my brothers, I could never do anything wrong so far as my sisters were concerned," Ted Kennedy said in an interview a few years ago with WXFT-TV in Boston. Not expected to be the family breadwinner, he learned instead to be responsive to the emotional climate in the room.
He maintained that role throughout his life, using his good nature to grease the Kennedy machinery and keep it from grinding to a halt.
The emotional intelligence he learned from his sisters and mother informed his work in the Senate, becoming the core of Kennedy's own brand of politics.
He had enlisted in the military, like his brothers, but could not hope to match the achievements of a war hero like Joe, who died in World War II. He was too reckless to be the elegant, movie-star figurehead for the family that John was. He would turn out to be particularly laughable as a moralist -- that was Bobby's role.
Instead, he found his greatest success in his family life and in creating his emotionally responsive political style.
Vice President Biden, speaking at a private memorial service for Kennedy on Friday night, said the secret to his success was simple: "People liked him."
Not everyone, of course, but the tributes from his many friends from the other side of the aisle was testament to that effective style. There was more to his success.
Of the three brothers' Senate careers, it was Ted's that emerged as the consummate nuts-and-bolts operation. John didn't have the patience for the arcane rules of the place and was already looking to bigger things the day he stepped into the chamber. Bobby, so passionate and eager, was frustrated by how long it could take to move things along. John would call his youngest brother the family's best politician, and it is legend now how much Ted Kennedy enjoyed the legislative game of bartering and persuasion.
As early as 1965, he talked about setting a record for longevity in the Senate. He died as the nation's third-longest-serving senator.
Returning to Capitol Hill six weeks after brain surgery last year to cast a vote to rescind cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, Edward M. Kennedy walked magisterially into the Senate chamber using his big brother John's old cane. His colleagues stood, applauded and cheered as the youngest Kennedy brother made his way down the aisle.
When the din subsided, he joyously raised his arms in the air and roared: "Aye!"
Vince Bzdek is the author of "The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled."