In Ted Kennedy, embodiment of family strength, weakness

Senator a survivor, picking up pieces of frequent tragedy

July 20, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A Republican senator jokingly warned Ted Kennedy during a heated moment in last week's health care debate that Kennedy was so riled up he might keel over from a heart attack.

But that's not how fate works in the Kennedy family.

Teddy is the survivor. The only one of the handsome princes allowed to grow old, wrinkled and fat. The only one to truly fulfill the promise of his family's commitment to public service.

Yesterday as he traveled to Long Island to console his niece, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, on the loss of her brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy once again took up his role of patriarch-by-default: the one left to pick up the pieces of a family plagued by tragedy.

Starting before dawn on Saturday, he had spent the weekend working the phones at the family complex in Hyannis Port. It was he who took the news from officials on the search for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s missing plane and gently passed along details to other family members and to relatives of the two passengers, Kennedy's wife, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette.

Before he returned to Cape Cod last night to issue the family's first statement acknowledging his nephew's death, the portly, 67-year-old senator was spotted playing basketball with Caroline's three young children at their home in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

`Greatest responsibility'

"That's just how the rules work in his family: The oldest [surviving] brother has the greatest opportunity and the greatest responsibility," said Joseph Cooper, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

Kennedy, the youngest of Joe and Rose Kennedy's nine children, comes to this task not just as the dutiful elder taking up the baton from his father and fallen brothers. After living his own life in a way that has at times been controversial, disappointing and even reckless, Kennedy is described by family and friends as a man of extraordinary compassion.

"I find him the most solicitous of the needs of others -- especially his nieces and nephews -- as anyone can possibly imagine," said John Seigenthaler, a family friend. "I think they understand he's a rock."

Looking at a 1938 photograph of Joseph P. Kennedy and his brood, it's hard to imagine that the chubby-faced toddler on his father's lap would come closest to succeeding him as head of one of America's most prominent political dynasties.

But Joseph Jr. -- chief vessel of his father's ambitions -- would be killed a few years later, at 29, in a wartime plane crash. John F. Kennedy would achieve the father's dream of putting a son in the White House, but would be assassinated within three years, at age 46.

The third in line, Robert F. Kennedy, was also cut down by an assassin as he made his own bid for the presidency. He was 42.

Not one of them lived long enough for their appearance to age more than a few laugh lines.

Clan leader

That left Teddy to carry on as leader of the notoriously male-dominated Kennedy clan, though Kennedy women have increasingly become active in public life in recent years.

The senator's sister Jean Kennedy Smith was named U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Another sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was instrumental in founding the Special Olympics. His niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, is believed to have a good chance of one day becoming governor.

"He takes great pride in what Eunice and Jean have done, and he's very closely following Kathleen's career in Maryland," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has worked closely with him. Others of Townsend's generation, including Ted's son Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island, are taking up the mantle.

So far, though, none of Joseph Kennedy's descendants can come anywhere close to matching Ted, and his 37 years in the Senate, for his fulfillment of political promise. Even under the Republican-controlled Congress, Kennedy has racked up an impressive list of legislative achievements on health care, education and raising the minimum wage.

President Clinton once praised Kennedy for being "as good at what he does as Michael Jordan is at playing basketball."

Years of hard living

Yet the years of hard work have been accompanied by years of hard living that have imprinted Kennedy politically and physically in a way that never caught up with his brothers.

A party on Chappaquiddick, a tiny island adjacent to Martha's Vineyard, 30 years ago this month ended with Kennedy driving off a bridge and resulted in the drowning death of the young woman riding with him. His own best chance for the White House was probably lost at that point.

His personal life has often been a shambles. His first marriage fell apart, and he took to legendary nightclub carousing.

His concern for the welfare of young Kennedys was called into question in 1991 when he rousted his son and nephew out of bed to go nightclubbing in Palm Beach. The nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was charged with rape after an incident that evening.

Smith was acquitted but the controversy so damaged the senator's political standing that Kennedy began a long campaign to mend his ways. In 1992, he married Victoria Reggie, and added her two young children to the vast tribe beneath his wing.

Kennedy seems happier and healthier now, but the highs and lows of his life have taken their toll. His face appears puffy and frequently flushed. Because he has a tendency to gain weight, the heart attack joke is not far-fetched.

Three decades ago, in the wake of Chappaquiddick, Kennedy speculated that perhaps his family was cursed.

But Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle suspects Kennedy doesn't truly believe that.

"I think he just takes life as it comes, and tries to make the best of the situation as it's handed to him," Daschle says. "I think that's what he's doing right now."

Pub Date: 7/20/99

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