There are times when I feel sorry for Ted Kennedy. He was born to play a Falstaffian role, ill-suited and ill-trained for the role destiny thrust upon him. And yet he muddles on, flailing from one scandal and misstep to another, constantly chafing under the ill-fitting crown given him as the champion of liberalism.
Edward Moore Kennedy, Sr., was the last of nine children of an incredibly powerful and driven man, and from the outset it was clear little was expected of him. The fourth of four sons, he could tell from the outset his father — the legendary Joseph P. Kennedy — set far more stock in his older sons. First came Joseph P. Junior, the old man’s namesake and heir presumptive. Then came John Fitzgerald, named after his maternal grandfather, legendary Boston politician John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Robert further honored Honey Fitz by bearing his middle name. Ted grew up knowing he was named after the family’s long-loyal chauffeur, Eddie Moore. Joe’s plan was for Joe Junior to become the first Irish Catholic president, to be succeeded by Jack. Robert would help his older brothers, and Teddy would… well, they’d find something to keep him out of trouble.
But Fate was not kind to Old Joe’s plans. Jack was injured in World War II, and it took all of Old Joe’s influence to convert what should have been scandal and disgrace into a tale of heroism. (Letting one’s PT boat get run down by a destroyer is comparable to letting your Corvette get run over by an 18-wheeler on an 8-lane highway.) Joe Junior, envious of Jack’s heroic treatment, volunteered for a very dangerous mission that cost him his life.
With the loss of Joe Junior, Old Joe sunk all his hopes on Jack. He pushed him to run for Congress, then the Senate, and finally the Presidency, with ever-loyal Bobby at his side.
Meanwhile, Ted continued to be, well, Ted. He enrolled in Harvard University in 1950, but was kicked out in 1951 after he was caught paying another student to take a Spanish test for him. He enlisted in the Army, but had a very undistinguished two-year career. He eventually returned to Harvard and got his degree.
In 1962, he finally got his first — and last — “real” job when he was elected to fill his brother Jack’s vacant Senate seat. Fortunately, he had just turned 30, the minimum age to hold Senate office. And that’s when things started going downhill.
Earlier, I called Ted a “Falstaffian” figure, and that’s pretty accurate. But he also seems to be a Typhoid Mary for karma, as tragedies began to befall all around him, often leaving him either untouched or far less severely.
In 1963, his brother Jack was assassinated in Dallas.
In 1964, he was in a plane crash that killed the pilot and another passenger, leaving him with a severe back injury.
In 1968, his brother Robert was assassinated in Los Angeles.
And then, The Big One. July, 1969. After a party on Martha’s Vineyard, Ted drove his car back towards the mainland. He drove off a bridge and dumped the car into a pond. He swam to shore, went to a hotel, chatted briefly with the clerk, and went to bed. In the morning, a fisherman spotted the car and reported it to the police.
And when the police recovered the car from the water, they found the body of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign staffer for Robert’s presidential bid and guest at the party. The coroner determined that she had survived the crash and had remained conscious for several hours in an airpocket in the submerged car before dying.
Teddy eventually pleaded guilty to “leaving the scene of an accident causing injury” and was given two months in jail (suspended) and his driver’s license was suspended.
Ted married Virginia Joan Bennett in 1958, and they had three children. She stood by him through all his scandals and peccadillos, even his disastrous run for president in 1980. (His challenge to incumbent Jimmy Carter is considered by many a factor in Carter’s eventual loss to Ronald Reagan). She endured all the jokes, snide remarks, and rumors about him (largely dealing with his fondness for women and strong drink), but they divorced in 1982. Since then, she has struggled with alcoholism. Recently, her grown children petitioned to be named her legal guardians, saying her alcoholism had left her unable to care for herself.
The family ties of the Kennedy clan are so strong that on the night of Easter this year (traditionally a big Kennedy family gathering day), Joan was found passed out, drunk, in a gutter outside her townhouse with a concussion and a broken shoulder, and a stranger carried her to the hospital. Since then, she has tried to sell her Cape Cod home, but her children are putting up a fierce legal fight to preserve the home where they grew up.
Kennedy’s womanizing ways are a Washington legend. When a supermarket tabloid published pictures of Kennedy getting “amorous” with a woman on his sailboat, one of his colleagues (Senator Howell Heflin) remarked that it appeared that Kennedy “had done changed his position on offshore drilling.” In 1985, he and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd allegedly made a “waitress sandwich” at a DC restaurant while their dates were in the rest room.
Ted’s second marriage, to Victoria Reggie, a DC area lawyer, in 1992 seemed to settle him down. He lost a bit of weight, seemed to cut back on his boozing, and in general seemed a bit more respectable. But the female curse that hangs over his head seems to have been deferred, not denied.
This time it wasn’t exactly a woman that is getting him in trouble, but said woman’s brother. Ray Reggie, 43, was a political operative in New Orleans who got himself in a bit of trouble a few years ago. He got caught not only ripping off three banks for the sum of 3.5 million dollars, he also pulled over teenage girls with a blue light on his car in the hopes of winning their favors.
But the FBI didn’t toss him away immediately. They came to an agreement with Reggie that kept him out of jail for a bit while he continued his political work — but now wearing a wire.
Reggie continued his political shenanigans over the last three years, but now the FBI has it all on tape. They have him meeting with both Bill and Hillary Clinton, for example, and several high-ranking members of her staff. In fact, one of her top fund raisers, David Rosen, is going on trial in Los Angeles next month for violating election laws at a 2000 fund-raiser for Hillary’s Senate campaign, and evidence from Reggie is expected to play a key role.
Now that the story is finally breaking (Reggie’s trial started in 2001, was pleaded out 2002, but the details were only made public recently), the speculation is flying fast and furious. Did Ray Reggie set up his brother-in-law? Did Ted know just how much trouble Ray was in, and did he “freeze him out” of anything sensitive? Did he aim Ray at the Clintons, hoping to save his wife’s brother’s hide (along with his own) at the expense of the family that has largely supplanted the Kennedys in Democratic power circles?
(Howie Carr, a Boston columnist, talk-show host, and general gadfly, is practically having on-air orgasms over this story. He runs a daily poll on his web site. The current poll (expiring Monday) is asking “In a battle, who would win, the Kennedy Crime Family or the Clinton Crime Family?” Right now, the Kennedys are winning, 64% to 36%, but there’s still time to get your vote in…)
I strongly suspect that Ted will survive this scandal, as he has so many others. And I further suspect it won’t taint his legacy among America’s liberals.
Poor, poor Ted. He’s spent his whole life living in the shadows of his father and far more capable brothers, and has suffered greatly because of it. If only one of those prior scandals had just been bad enough to kill his political career, he might have found his own niche in the world and lived a quiet, productive life. But the constant pressure to “be a Kennedy” (and, since 1968, the patriarch of the family) has kept him and his flaws front and center on the world stage.
I’d feel even more sorry for him, but for fifty years it seems everyone but him has paid the price for his failures, his shortcomings, his lapses.
And some with their lives.