| Teddy Kennedy, Keeper of the Flame |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 1999; Page C1 He was supposed to be the kid brother, the engaging and rambunctious boyo who periodically mislays his judgment while his elder brothers do the serious business of the family and that of the nation as well.
But a 35-year family catalogue of death and transfiguration cast him against type, and Edward Moore Kennedy became the tragic hero, the flawed, self-destructive protagonist who flees frantically from death only to encounter it repeatedly in some unexpected place and form. Then the senior senator from Massachusetts ends up planning the funerals, starring in his numbing, recurring nightmare and ours, again and again.
A spokesman for the senator’s office said “it’s a good guess” that Sen. Kennedy will take charge of memorial service arrangements for his nephew John F. Kennedy Jr., whose murdered father and cancer-claimed mother he also mourned and eulogized.
The senator, the spokesman said, had flown Friday afternoon to Hyannis Port for the wedding of his youngest niece, Rory, born months after an assassin’s bullet cut down her father. Instead he learned his nephew John had disappeared in a plane en route to Martha’s Vineyard, where a day short of 30 years before, the senator had fled in panic after his car plunged off a narrow bridge, killing a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne.
Teddy Kennedy had mourned and eulogized her, too.
For more than 30 years he has been the lightning rod for all the hopes and fears of a resurgent Camelot; the walking embodiment of all the recklessness, responsibility, political resilience, dynastic expectation, glandular excess, celebrity swagger and noblesse oblige that cling to the Kennedy legacy.
But he’s had to do that while burying the dead.
He lost his brother Joe in an exploding warplane when he was 12, his sister Kathleen to an air crash when he was 16. He himself fell from the air in a plane when he was 32 and still suffers the effects of a broken back.
One brother was assassinated when he was 31, the other five years later.
He lost one of Bobby’s sons to a heroin overdose, another to a freak skiing accident. His elder son lost his leg and almost his life to cancer.
He has become one of the nation’s hardest-working and most influential senators, a champion of the poor and dispossessed respected by even his most conservative legislative colleagues. But outside the Capitol, his behavior, like his unvarnished liberalism, enshrined him throughout the 1980s as the favorite punching bag of the political right. He has sought periodic refuge over the years in grotesquely flamboyant womanizing and in drinking binges of frightening and highly public intensity.
“They’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot Bobby. . . .” he babbled to reporters between drinks while flying back from a 1969 congressional trip to inspect Inuit poverty in Alaska. It was a rare public confession of torments he and his family prefer not to discuss.
He lifted the veil a bit further in 1992, three months after wedding Victoria Reggie. He had been rather notoriously single since his 1982 divorce from his first wife, Joan, and he told Fox Butterfield of the New York Times he had not intended to marry again.
“The people who had been closest to me over the course of my life had disappeared, with that enormous amount of emotion and feeling and love,” he said. “I thought I probably wouldn’t want to go through that experience again.”
But he’s had no choice. “Since Bobby died, he’s been the family patriarch,” said one longtime friend of the family. All that grieving “comes with the job.”
Teddy Kennedy can be eloquent in his role as keeper of the Kennedy flame.
“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” he said at Robert Kennedy’s 1968 funeral, “to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
Monday, in a statement he released for the family, he spoke of the “unspeakable grief” of losing a nephew who was “a shining light in all our lives.”
He’s also become adept at defusing pain with humor. At Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s funeral in 1994 he recalled President Kennedy saying: “Jackie speaks fluent French. But I only understand one out of every five words she says – and that word is ‘DeGaulle.’‚” In the eulogy for his indomitable mother, Rose Kennedy, the following year, he spoke of entering her room with a tennis racket when she was 101 and being asked: “Are you sure that’s your racket, Teddy? I’ve been looking all over the house for mine.”
Some sort of death or family disaster has now become the longest running thread in Edward Kennedy’s life. How does he deal with it?
“Well, God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from taking over the world,” said David Breasted, who covered Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign as a journalist for the New York Daily News. Breasted, a recovering alcoholic himself, remembers being a guest at the Kennedy compound in August 1968, four months after Robert Kennedy’s assassination and “it was a pretty hilarious time. . . . Fiercely competitive tennis games. . . . Merciless teasing. . . . They never talked about death or assassination. They never talked about the pain or how we all felt. They just set out to live their way through it. . . .”
“I remember Teddy one night leading a procession singing ‘Southie’s My Home Town’ upstairs to dump Steve and Jean Smith out of bed. I guess that was how he assumed leadership of the family.”
Yet emotional denial can exact a cost. A year later came Chappaquiddick – an incident whose many unanswered questions derailed any presidential ambitions. His 1982 divorce from Joan was followed by increasingly erratic personal behavior. The latter should have reached some sort of nadir in 1987 when, in a much celebrated incident, he was interrupted in flagrante delicto with a female lobbyist on the floor of a Capitol Hill restaurant after a wine-soaked lunch.
But things got worse. In 1991 he was highly criticized for wandering around the lawn of the Kennedy’s Palm Beach mansion in his nightshirt, rousting his son Patrick and nephew William Kennedy Smith from their beds for several hours of late-night bar-and-bimbo hopping. This would lead to Smith’s trial – and eventual messy acquittal – on a charge of rape.
By then a whole generation of Americans had grown up so callous, cynical and inured to the continuing melodrama of the Kennedy family that a rock group sold hundreds of thousands of records under the name “Dead Kennedys.”
In the face of widespread public disillusion and the threat of political defeat as a consequence, Teddy Kennedy sought to clean up his act. He made a highly publicized speech at Harvard in 1991, acknowledging “the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me” and promised to overcome “the faults in the conduct of my private life” as he continued to “fight the good fight” in the Senate.
The following year he remarried, and in the years since appears to have lived up to his pledge. But in 1991 during Smith’s televised rape trial, Edward Moore Kennedy took the stand and spoke with quiet eloquence of the cumulative weight of the family’s legacy of personal loss.
The night he had asked Smith and his son to go drinking, he said, he had attended an emotional reunion of family and friends of Smith’s father. It was the first such reunion since Stephen Smith had died two years before.
“We had lost a brother in the war,” he said, his voice breaking momentarily. “When Jean [Kennedy, his sister] married Steve, we had another brother” with whom the Kennedys soon became extremely close.
One of the friends at that Palm Beach reunion, he testified, was William Barry, the ex-FBI agent who handles security at the Kennedy compound. He had been the man who knocked the pistol from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand the world-reeling night in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was shot.
“At the end of the conversation I couldn’t think of sleeping” he said, riveting the television audience with a heart-searing look of defiant pain. “I wish now I’d gone for a long walk on the beach instead.”
Yesterday, the senior senator from Massachusetts was making his way though the dreamscape of family grief once again amid his death-winnowed siblings and their children and grandchildren.
“Whatever else Teddy’s done wrong in his life, he has always been there for his nieces and nephews,” said one longtime friend. “They’ve sought him out for advice on every sort of question, whether or not their own parents are alive. And often the questions are about how to keep on keeping on in the face of it all. Because to the Kennedys the unfairness of life is a given. They don’t do victimhood.”
The senator met Monday with John’s sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who was in seclusion with her children on Long Island. He played basketball for a time with her children. Then there was another eulogy to write.