The Lion Sleeps Tonight: A Look at the Late Ted Kennedy

This week marked the end of an era in American politics. The passing of Edward “Ted” Kennedy wasn’t a surprise; he had been diagnosed with brain cancer in May of 2008 and has been largely absent from the Senate floor for most of this year. There are several areas of Kennedy’s tenure in politics that have brought a lot of attention to his passing. First of all, Kennedy was the third longest serving senator in history with 47 years in office. Only Robert Byrd of West Virginia and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina have served longer. Kennedy was elected to his post a record 9 times in the state of Massachusetts. Although Ted Kennedy’s political career was marked by scandal and failed presidential aspirations, Kennedy will be remembered as one of the greatest contributors to our nation’s laws in modern history. Whether or not you agreed with his politics, it is inarguable that Ted Kennedy’s legacy is in his legislative accomplishments and willingness to work with people on both sides of the political aisle. Nearly every major piece of legislation in the last five decades dealing with the health, civil rights, and the economic well being of the American people brandished Kennedy’s signature and his efforts.

Secondly, Ted Kennedy was part of an American legacy that is more or less unmatched in American history. Kennedy’s great grandfather Patrick Kennedy was the first of the Kennedys to immigrate to the United States from Ireland in 1849. An Irish Catholic who fathered five children, Patrick prematurely passed away from a cholera outbreak in 1858. His wife Bridget bought a stationery store soon after Patrick’s death, which later expanded into a grocery and liquor store. This became the foundation of the Kennedy’s entrepreneurship that would help pave the way for their children and grandchildren to achieve success in American history. PJ Kennedy, born shortly after his father’s death in 1858, was the first Kennedy to receive a formal education in United States. He attended Boston College on scholarship and became a successful businessman through the ownership of several pubs and a whiskey import business in Boston. PJ Kennedy also was the first Kennedy to become involved in politics. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1884-1889 and in the state senate from 1889-1895. PJ’s son, Joseph P. Kennedy, married Rose Fitzgerald, who was the daughter of Democrat mayor John F. Fitzgerald. This marriage became the cornerstone of the Kennedy political dynasty. Joseph and Rose had nine children, among them former President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and of course the now late Ted Kennedy. Joseph Kennedy was no stranger to politics, either. He served as the first chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission for Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1934-1935 and was US ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938-1940.

Coming out of such a rich political heritage, Ted Kennedy was bound for political stardom. However, in his early life he lived in the shadow of his older brothers Robert, John, and Joseph (who died as a pilot in World War II). Ted was originally kicked out of Harvard in 1951 for having a friend take his Spanish exam for him. He spent two years in the United States army before reentering Harvard and graduating in 1956. Ted Kennedy then entered law school at the University of Virginia and in 1958 managed his brother John’s Senate reelection campaign. He graduated from law school in 1959. Ted remained close to John’s political career, helping him secure the Democrat nomination for President in 1960 and the overall win in the general election. Ted would later take John’s vacated Massachusetts Senate seat in 1962 after he reached the Constitutional age of 30 required of US senators. Tragedy soon struck in the young senator’s life, when on November 22, 1963 his brother John was assassinated. Ted Kennedy continued on the path of tragedy as he narrowly survived a plane crash in 1964, which landed him a 6 month recovery in the hospital. He was reelected to the Senate that year from his hospital bed, and his brother Robert earned a Senate seat from New York the same year. Both brothers were sworn in together on the first day of the 89th Congress in 1965. Ted Kennedy was further catapulted into the national scene in 1968 when his brother Robert was assassinated while campaigning for President. Ted delivered the eulogy, which was often quoted and is recognized by many as the beginning of Ted’s role as the “Lion of the Senate.”

Ted Kennedy’s political career sustained its largest setback with what became infamously known as the “Chappaquiddick incident” in 1969. Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge after a night of partying in Martha’s Vineyard. Though Kennedy swam to safety, his 28 year old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the accident. To make matters worse, Kennedy didn’t report the incident to police until the next day when Kopechne’s body was discovered by authorities. After the Chappaquiddick incident, Kennedy made the determination that he would abandon his Presidential aspirations for 1972 and focus on his role as a lawmaker in the Senate. Kennedy launched a failed bid for President in 1980 against Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter. Details about the Chappaquiddick incident continued to plague Kennedy, and he quickly lost support. Even though Kennedy didn’t have enough delegates to clinch the nomination, he entered the 1980 Democrat National Convention anyway. Kennedy hoped to pass a rule that would have allowed delegates the ability to break ranks with the popular vote and cast votes how they pleased. This bid failed, but it set the stage for Ted Kennedy’s most famous speech that declared the cause of American liberalism in the United States. Kennedy pulled quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., FDR, and Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, which led to a standing ovation that lasted nearly half an hour. Kennedy’s dominating rhetoric was his trademark. His oratory skills were second to none in modern politics. Even after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in May of 2008, Kennedy still delivered the dynamic speech in August of last year, endorsing Barack Obama for the presidency. Perhaps Barack Obama’s own ability to deliver dynamic speeches was the kindred connection that Kennedy and Obama shared.

After Kennedy lied in repose at the JFK memorial library in Boston on Thursday and Friday this week, a private memorial was held Friday evening. Kennedy’s funeral mass is being held at the modest Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston on Saturday. People close to the Kennedy family indicated that Kennedy chose this location because it was a source of comfort where Kennedy often came discreetly to pray when his daughter was diagnosed with lung cancer in remission and for himself after his own cancer diagnosis. (Kennedy’s daughter Kara’s cancer is now in remission). President Barack Obama is scheduled to give the eulogy, which is expected to draw former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, along with most members of the Senate and other dignitaries both foreign and domestic.

Perhaps I am not the best person to pay any type of tribute to the late Ted Kennedy. After all, I was not around to witness the scares of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of two brothers, the pains of the Vietnam War, or the civil rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s. I was barely a year old when Kennedy delivered his speech in 1980. In fact, I don’t even agree with a great portion of Kennedy’s liberal agenda. However, as a former history major and a citizen that takes civic responsibility and awareness seriously, it is impossible to ignore Ted Kennedy’s contributions to American politics. Despite indiscretions and setbacks, Ted Kennedy largely outlived his critics. It’s unfortunate that even in the hours after his death that many liberal Democrats have tried to use Kennedy’s death to push the fundamentally flawed health care reform that is being touted by Congress at the moment. But that is for another day. Cheers to Ted Kennedy for a life and legacy worth acknowledgment. The “Lion of the Senate” will be missed.

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