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Books: 'The Kennedy Legacy'

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Vincent Bzdek
Author and News Editor, The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 12:00 PM

Author and Washington Post news editor Vincent Bzdek was online Tuesday, April 28, at Noon ET to discussThe Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby, Ted, and a Family Dream Fulfilled, which traces the family's brotherhood in three acts, details the political power, struggles and scandals that have characterized it and brings the story to the present with Ted Kennedy at the helm of the next generation of Kennedys.

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Vincent Bzdek: Hello this is Vincent Bzdek. I look forward to your questions about The Kennedy Legacy and the article in today's Style section about Patrick Kennedy.

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Rural, Va.: Bobby Kennedy's character transformation from the 50s to the 60s was nothing short of astounding -- moving from a pro-McCarthy stance towards a "total communication" concept.

I've often wondered if Eisenhower influenced this change, since Eisenhower firmly believed in dialog as exemplified by his relationship with Prime Minister Khrushchev.

How close were the Kennedys to Eisenhower?

Vincent Bzdek: Bobby's transformation truly was astounding, especially concerning matters of war. He changed a reputation for ruthlessness in political dealings into a compassion for the downtrodden that still endures as his legacy. I think it was really Jack's death that prompted the change, more than his relationship with Eisenhower. After the assassination, Bobby reassessed his approach to politics, and when he no longer had to be the bad cop to his brother's good cop, he let the humanity at his core come to the fore.

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Boston: What's left of the Kennedy fortune financially? Have the subsequent generations' pieces of the pie been invested wisely or has it been squandered?

Vincent Bzdek: The Kennedy family still has a substantial family fortune, and there were reports in January that Caroline Kennedy herself was worth $100 million. The family's biggest cash cow over the years was Chicago's Merchandise Mart, which they sold in 1998 for $550 million. At one time in the 1930s, Joe Kennedy Sr., Ted's father, was one of the richest men in the country. Of course the family has many more members in it now that share in that fortune, but it's still quite significant.

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Boston: What is Ted Kennedy's biggest private regret?

Vincent Bzdek: Ted Kennedy once told former Senator Al Simpson of Wyoming that there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't think about Chappaquiddick, and the loss of Mary Jo Kopechne's life in the accident there. "It's with me every day," he told Simpson just a few years ago.

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23224: Since the death of John Jr., and outside of Patrick, is there anyone in the current generation who shows any of the political ambitions of the previous generation? Are we likely to see another Kennedy in the Senate anytime soon?

Vincent Bzdek: I really don't think we're likely to see another Kennedy in the Senate soon. There have been some reports that Ted's wife, Vicki, might run for his seat eventually, but she has said nothing publicly. Maria Shriver's son is interested in running for attorney general of California, so the next generation of Kennedys may emerge on the West Coast. But the political machine that got Jack and Ted and Bobby into office no longer exists, as evidenced by Caroline's thwarted attempt to join the Senate. Instead, I think you'll see Kennedys continue the family's public service ethic in other ways, such as Special Olympics, Bobby Kennedy Jr.'s environmental efforts, and Kerry Kennedy's human rights work. I'd also keep an eye on Joe Kennedy's twin sons, Matt and Joe Jr., who are at Harvard now. I met them in Denver and they were both brimming over with Kennedy charisma.

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Arlington, Va.: Teddy Kennedy is being lauded now as an elder statesman, but it's hard to forget the brushes with the law he's had in the past. What do you think will be/is his true legacy?

Vincent Bzdek: Ted Kennedy really did have a checkered private life until he married his current wife, Vicki, in the early 90s. There were speeding tickets, affairs, many many reports of heavy drinking and other reckless behavior. But since he married Vicki, he's turned himself around. And ironically, through all his private ups and downs, he continued to build an unprecedented record of accomplishment in the Senate. I think now that record of accomplishment has far eclipsed his private tribulations. His sins seem to be forgiven -- he was even knighted by the Queen! So I think his legacy will be as one of the greatest Senators in American history, and one of traditional liberalism's most dedicated advocates.

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Rockville, Md.: What do you see as the driving force behind the enduring sense that the Kennedys are the equivalent of American royalty? How on earth did the secure that position? And do you think the Obamas will wrestle that mantle from them?

Vincent Bzdek: When Jack was running for office, the Kennedys held formal, invitation-only parties around Massachusetts that were staged like royal events, complete with a receiving live to meet Joe and Rose Kennedy. Women dressed up in their finest clothes to attend, and often went just to get a glimpse of Jack. The Kennedys tapped into the aspirations of recent Irish immigrants and others who really had come to America to grab onto the American Dream. They all wanted to get where the Kennedys had, and the Kennedys became their gold standard. Joe Sr. was a wizard at publicizing the royal image for his family thanks to his years as a Hollywood producer. Then, after Jack's death, Jackie gave an exclusive interview to a reporter in which she talked extensively about how much Jack had loved the play Camelot, and how he thought of himself in heroic terms. The Camelot label, and the whole idea of a brief, shining moment, stuck.

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Alexandria, Va.: Many, many books have been written on the Kennedys. What makes this one different? Also, what did you learn while you were doing your research that truly surprised you?

Vincent Bzdek: I think we are in the midst of what Patrick Kennedy described as a poignant "grand finale" of the Kennedy's story. I thought that perhaps now was the time to take the full measure of the Kennedy legacy, and look back and try to figure out what it has meant to the country in total. I've looked at the story of the Kennedy borthers -- Joe Jr., Jack, Bobby and Ted -- as one story rather than four, each successive brother striving to fulfill the interrupted promise and finish the unfinished life of the brother before. So in a way, thanks to Ted, there is a final chapter to the Kennedy story that hadn't been told fully, and it's actually a rather happy ending after all the tragedy that has come before. The biggest surpise to me in my research has been how much Ted has accomplished as a Senator, how much of his brothers' dreams he made a reality. It's more than most presidents.

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Baltimore, Md.: Can you comment on the close working relationship that Senator Kennedy has had with Orrin Hatch of Utah? If there were ever a political "odd couple," it would be those two.

Vincent Bzdek: I interviewed Sen. Hatch for the book and was overwhelmed, frankly, by how fond he is of Ted. Yet when Sen. Hatch first came to Congress, he said "I came to Washington to fight Ted Kennedy." They first began working together closely as members of the labor committee when Ronald Reagan was in office. As chairman, Hatch realized he needed Ted's help to pass anything out of the committee, and Ted realized he needed Hatch's help to preserve some of his programs. They became great friends, sharing a common compassion, I would argue. They wanted to get things done more than fight, so they found common ground on all sorts of issues. They truly put friendship above partisanship. As a result, they teamed up to establish the largest federally-funded program for people with AIDS, they cosponsored a program that gave health insurance to 9 million uninsured kids. And they just partnerd on an enormous new national service program.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you think that, had Bobby and Jack lived, they would have had the same impact on popular culture/American history? I ask because they were both fallible human beings, yet this country seemed to treat them both like stars. Do you think that they would have been able to hold onto their shiny patinas if they'd lived through the 70s, 80s, 90s? Or would Jack have had a Bill Clinton-like fall at some point?

Vincent Bzdek: I don't think they would have had the same impact. The nostalgia for what Jack and Bobby represented turned them into larger-than-life icons, and surely Jack's affairs and the Kennedy brothers' secret dealings to assassinate Castro and wiretap Martin Luther King, would have leaked out and brought them down to earth. Yet their memories, and that nostalgia, provided the jet fuel for huge accomplishments: landing on the moon, The Civil Rights Act, Vista, the Voting Rights Act, a huge number of social programs we have now. Ironically, their deaths, and what President Johnson, Sargent Shriver, Ted Kennedy and others fought for so that they wouldn't die in vain, may have accomplished more than they would have been able to had they lived.

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Legacy: Recently one of President Obama's advisers said that his campaign was the completion of RFK's tragically shortened 1968 Presidential run. I have heard others who saw many of the qualities of RFK and JFK in President Obama, and clearly the endorsement by Sen. Kennedy and his niece Caroline was significant.

Vincent Bzdek: The parallels are extraordinary, and I believe that the endorsement by Ted and Caroline was the turning point for Obama's candidacy. It was absolutely crucial, giving him momentum at just the right time. In the late 60s, Bobby Kennedy speculated that it would be 40 years before an Afircan American became president. He was exactly right.

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Vincent Bzdek: It's time for me to sign off now. Thanks very, very much for all your insightful questions, and taking the time to chat. Wish I could answer them all.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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