As Boston columnist Mike Barnacle wrote insightfully, Ted Kennedy was the only Kennedy brother who was provided an intuition of his death. Joe was killed in World War II, and Jack and Bobby were assassinated. In and of itself, that sad and tragic fact would serve to make the accomplishments of Senator Kennedy’s life worthy of respect. One would have been hard pressed not to understand had he decided to withdraw completely from the public eye, if only out of concern for his own safety and privacy.
And yet, Ted Kennedy did exactly the opposite. Rather than withdraw, he threw himself into the legislative process with such energy and passion that he became, arguably, the most effective and respected member of the Senate in our times, across party lines. Partisan though he was, he managed to pass hundreds of pieces of legislation by reaching across the aisle and brokering deals with even the most conservative Republicans. He is mourned by Democrat and Republican alike. In these contentious and fractious times, that is no small statement.
But obviously, Ted Kennedy’s legacy is more complicated than what he was able to accomplish in the Senate, even factoring in his family tragedies.
As much as any contemporary politician- and these days, that’s saying a lot- Ted Kennedy was a flawed character. He was, famously and tragically, a much-chronicled carouser who drank too much and betrayed his wife. His failure of judgment at Chappaquiddick- and that is a benign way to phrase what happened there- was, as he himself said, inexcusable, and far too often he was a caricature of himself. In too many ways, his behavior was out of control.
But apropos this season of atonement and forgiveness, the life that Ted Kennedy lived after Chappaquiddick was, in significant ways, redemptive. His second marriage appeared to have centered and grounded him, and he certainly rose to the sad occasion of playing paterfamilias to his many nieces and nephews who had been left fatherless by tragedy. He was beloved of all of them, and that surely must mean something significant.
And, of course, though his behavior had threatened his career, Kennedy devoted himself to his Senate career with the kind of skill and passion that justified his not having resigned in shame. On so many social issues that matter, his was a ringing voice for the less fortunate, elevating their cause onto the national consciousness. Flawed though he was, he was also capable of greatness, and displayed it on many occasions.
We are living through a time when politician after politician seems fated to disappoint us with a brutish display of clay feet, and rarely do they adequately redeem themselves. Ted Kennedy more than adequately redeemed himself. He will be sorely missed.