Ted Kennedy’s Full Measure

My initial reaction to the news that Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor is — how sad. What a tragic end to the Kennedy “era.” The family has been prominent in national politics since Joseph P. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt first became allies in the 1920s. “”Only the Adams family in the earliest days of the republic had the kind of stature, respect and impact on public life as the Kennedys,” former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen told Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post.

One way to look at this news is that life sure has been unfair to that family. Fans were hoping that Ted Kennedy would live a very long life, out serve Bobby Byrd (14 years his senior) in the Senate to become the longest serving member of Congress, finally win passage of career-long goals such as national health insurance, and become the greatest or most influential U.S. Senator in history. That would be a triumphant end to the story of the Kennedy brothers in national politics, since the lives of his brothers were so tragically cut short.

I suppose that’s still possible, if by some miracle Kennedy beats this diagnosis the way that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and other brain tumor survivors have done. Two of his children and his ex-wife are cancer survivors, so he has personal examples of family members who have battled cancer and won.

Another way to look at this news is that Ted Kennedy has had a longer than average life, a very privileged life, and given the risks he took, at 76 he was lucky to be alive and living on borrowed time. Genetics may play a role in this malady — his father suffered a stroke at the age of 73, lost all power of speech, and remained confined to a wheelchair until his death at age 81.

Ted Kennedy’s adult life has been defined by surviving tragedy after tragedy, some the result of family hubris. A lesser man might well have been broken, drowning himself in alcohol and bitterness.

There are sure to be many media retrospectives on his life and career, comparable to those afforded presidents. If his health holds enough for him to return to public life — people with malignant brain tumors generally have an outside chance of surviving five years — there will be the public desire, not just in Massachusetts but in Washington and in progressive circles around the nation, to see him and touch him, and to pay respects once last time, to a living political legend.

There is the likelihood, as with all things Kennedy, of media glare and hype to the point of hysteria, of enlarging his life and historical importance beyond reason, and creating a backlash designed to deflate him and his family in general. Beware of stories that portray him as a saint or demon, painting him with an ideological brush as either the heroic father of modern liberalism or as a prime symbol of what is wrong with this country. At least initially, the voices of those who hate what he stands for will, one hopes, be muted out of respect and good taste.

In this environment, it may be impossible to fairly take Kennedy’s full measure. He’s working on a memoir, for which he received an $8 million advance, which is scheduled to be released in 2010, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency. That timetable may now be accelerated.

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