News & Politics

The Ghosts of Teddy Kennedy

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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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