News & Politics

The Ghosts of Teddy Kennedy


You half-expected the Post this morning to have re-plated its front page with one of its many Page Six cartoons, the ones depicting a paunchy Teddy Kennedy,
wearing heart-bedecked boxer shorts and chasing a perky blonde around the bedroom.

Rupert Murdoch never forgave Kennedy for having briefly pushed him out of the daily tabloid business back in the 1980s. Irked by a steady stream of vitriol aimed at him by Murdoch’s Boston Herald, Kennedy quietly won enforcement of an FCC ban against cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same town. Murdoch, unwilling to part with his emerging TV empire, was forced to sell both the Post and the Herald. It wasn’t exactly a shining moment for a liberal icon. But neither journalism nor the Herald (which prospered under new ownership) seemed the worse for the deal. As for Kennedy, it was an
interesting reminder that the youngest and most idealistic of the Kennedy clan retained the family talent for throwing sharp elbows when needed.

Murdoch didn’t get the Post back until it hit bankruptcy a few years later. As soon as he did, the liberal lion from Massachusetts became a steady and obligatory object of ridicule. Nothing so excited a Murdoch editor as a new photo of an over-stuffed and bare-chested Kennedy at a sailboat’s helm, looking like Jabba the Hutt goes to sea.

There was plenty to make fun of. Even Jack Newfield, as strong a Kennedy admirer as they come, wrote in a sum-up  piece in The Nation in 2002 that Kennedy was a lost soul through much of that period. He “spent too many nights drinking too much, chasing younger women, trying to postpone the times when he was alone with his ghosts,” wrote Newfield. “He put on weight and seemed almost an Elvis Presley figure in premature, irreversible decline.”

There were plenty of ghosts. As Newfield pointed out, Kennedy was constantly atoning for his disgraceful performance when a young woman drowned in 1969 after their car ran off a bridge into a Martha’s Vineyard inlet. His behavior that night was “irrational, indefensible and inexcusable,” he admitted after the question dogged him in 1980 as he made his only serious run for the White House.

That would be quite enough public humiliation for most of us. No one would’ve been too surprised if he had gone off after that, to prosper in the private or nonprofit sectors somewhere inside the Beltway, or just to spend his days sailing in Nantucket Sound.

But whatever effect those demons had on him, he refused to quit the scene. He went back to work, turning himself into what even his senate GOP opponents acknowledged – and this was said long before illness and cancer made him an object of mandatory sympathy and compassion – was the greatest senator of his time. Labor rights, health care, housing, and education are all the better thanks to his hard work. He was one of the only living politicians who could utter the phrase “public service” without making listeners wince.

There is an old generational-divide joke, the one where an aging baby boomer asks someone a few years junior where they were when Kennedy died. The response goes: “Teddy Kennedy died?”

Well, he did now, and this one also stings, not as sharply as the first two, but with just as deep a sense of loss. Ted Kennedy beat the bad luck that snuffed the lives of his older brothers, all dead in their prime, their reputations sealed by tragedy and grief. The little brother lived long enough to make big mistakes and be caught making them. He also lived long enough to do many of the great things for his country that they could only wish they’d had the time for.



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