Ted Kennedy’s Life: Essential to Understanding American History and Politics

Fame is so fleeting. A 20-year-old asks, “Is Senator Kennedy related to the President Kennedy?” My 12-year-old is, of course, unfamiliar with the story of the Kennedys, or specifically of Ted, who ameliorated his brothers’ inspiring but relatively brief and tragic lives at the pinnacle of American political power by his half-century of public service. Ted was the chief architect of thousands of bills, hundreds of which became law.

Together, the family’s collective contribution over four generations as mayor of Boston, members of the House and Senate, as ambassadors to England and Ireland, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as founder of the Special Olympics, as President, as Attorney General, as diplomats, journalists, attorneys and advocates on the world stage, and as authors (of such bestsellers as “Why England Slept,” “Profiles in Courage,” “The Enemy Within,” and “Thirteen Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis”) over an 80-year-and-counting period is remarkable, and comparable to that other great American family dynasty, the Adams.

“John Kennedy inspired America, Robert Kennedy challenged America, and Ted Kennedy changed America,” is how Ted’s colleague Chris Dodd put it.

To know the family’s history is to know an important part of American history. That’s why I asked my son to watch this CBS News documentary, “The Last Brother” — essential viewing for anyone who wants to have some grasp of modern American history and politics. Teddy was at the center of American politics for 50 years.

Not only is Ted’s story an inspiring one of perseverence through unthinkable tragedy after unthinkable tragedy, it is a story of personal redemption, and a story of how the youngest of four brothers through five decades in public life, through steady, reliable, impassioned public service ameliorated the terrible impact of his brothers’ early deaths. And in anecdote after anecdote, it became clear just how “other centered” Senator Kennedy became, in the small gestures of kindness toward so many people when the cameras weren’t on and nobody was looking.

When my son is older, I should also ask him to read “Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy,” and the excerpts and video coverage at the Boston Globe site. I am proud to say that our cousin Bella English wrote part of that book.

Now Kennedy, as was said of Abraham Lincoln, “belongs to the ages.” Joel Achenbach adds: “Visitors (to Arlington Cemetary in Washington, where all three Kennedy brothers are buried) will know that these Kennedys really mattered to us. But as they pass into history, it will be harder and harder to remember just how much they charmed us, how much they inspired us and how much they broke our hearts.”

The Kennedys are so great at memorializing their fallen and dedicating their memory to causes larger than one individual. Kennedy’s work will go on through his political action committe, TedKennedy.org and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Study of the United States Senate (EMKInstitute.org). His memories and observations of the political process have been recorded and preserved in an oral history project through the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He also has an autobiography coming out called “True Compass.”

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