BY MARC PITZKE and MARC HUJER
The United States had no need for royalty when it had the Kennedys — a legendary dynasty whose highs and lows gripped the nation. With the passing of Ted Kennedy, the clan has lost its last great figure.
The party was about to begin but there was no sign of the host. A tent had been erected, the buffet was prepared. For appetizers there were pieces of mozzarella with yellow and red cherry tomatoes, though no one dared touch them.
The Kennedy Clan in 1938: American Ambassador and financier Joseph Patrick Kennedy with his wife and five of their nine children at their Princes Gate home in London. Left to right: Kathleen, Edward, Joseph Kennedy, wife Rose Kennedy, Patricia, Jean and Robert, who was Attorney General in his brother’s administration and was assassinated while campaigning for the presidency in 1968.
It was Saturday, May 17, 2008 and the waiting guests at the Kennedy clan’s compound at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod were puzzled and slowly becoming impatient. Tom Brady, the football star with the New England Patriots was there, as was the former world record sprinter Carl Lewis and a few big donors. There was plenty to eat, but no one was there to greet the guests.
It was the day that Ted Kennedy’s battle with death began. And in a way it was also the day that the struggle began over who would take on the mantle of the head of the last great political dynasty in America. A struggle that had not been resolved 15 months later when Kennedy died late Tuesday night.
June 1938: Edward Kennedy, the youngest son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy at the age
of 6 giving sugar to a baby elephant at Regent’s Park Zoo.
“There seems to be no one there to pick up the torch,” Thomas Whalen, a Kennedy biographer and political scientist at Boston University, told Reuters.
The latest drama of the Kennedys, the legendary clan, whose fortunes and setbacks have mesmerized those at home and abroad for decades, began on that Saturday in May 2008 in the Kennedys’ garden. The party was supposed to have been the highpoint of a weekend of festivities, dedicated to Best Buddies, the charity set up by Ted’s nephew Anthony Kennedy Shriver.
June 1968: Edward Kennedy with his parents Rose and Joseph Kennedy.
But as was so often the case, this was much more than just a family party. There was a reception in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in nearby Boston, a 20-mile bike race on Cape Cod, a lobster supper for 1,200 Kennedy loyalists on Hyannis beach, an evening concert by the B-52s. After all, this was a bash thrown by the Kennedys, who still consider themselves to be America’s “First Family.”
The guests’ Blackberrys soon began to beep with the CNN breaking news report. Just a few hours earlier, at 8.19 a.m., the emergency services had been called to Ted Kennedy’s house. The senator had been playing with his dogs before breakfast as usual and then, as he sat down to drink his coffee, he suffered a seizure.
The Beginning of the End for the Dynasty
Following an initial check up at the island hospital on Cape Cod Kennedy was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Doctors there later discovered a malignant brain tumor. They only gave him a few months to live, though he held out much longer.
Many had already realized, however, that this was the beginning of the end of the dynasty. With Ted Kennedy the family was losing the last person who still had the gravitas and respect of bygone days. Despite all the trappings of power and wealth that the younger Kennedys still enjoy to this day, none has quite made the grade.
And behind the cliché of Camelot used to describe JFK’s brief presidency, there has always been the whiff of deception and envy, scandals and intrigues associated with the clan. And with Ted Kennedy’s death, these tensions are likely to become all the more public. America’s last royalty, which has always been buffeted by fate, now stands without a leader as it faces its own demise and its greatest threat, irrelevancy.
The ‘Kennedy Curse’
This became clear immediately after Kennedy’s seizure. Almost immediately dozens of relatives, friends, advisers, political loyalists and even distant acquaintances thronged into his VIP hospital suite. The scene was reminiscent of “one of those medieval paintings that depict the death of a great prince,” Vanity Fair wrote, describing the moment. It’s a scene that is, in all likelihood, now being re-enacted.
They didn’t just come to pay their respects and lend Kennedy their support. There were important questions to address, macabre issues of inheritance, that were debated cold-bloodedly right there in the corridors of the clinic. Who would head the family after his death? Who would represent the family to the outside world and carry the family’s political and social mantle?
These kinds of questions never arose in the past. Ted, Bobby and John F. Kennedy were once the golden boys, who were to push the political dynasty established by their father, patriarch and former ambassador Joseph Kennedy, to new heights. One would become president, the second was attorney general and Ted, who lived the longest and was the least glamorous, became a senator.
Yet none of them could escape the ominous “Kennedy curse.”
Their eldest brother Joe, who had originally been their father’s great white hope, was killed in World War II. Their sister Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948, another sister Rosemary was the victim of a botched lobotomy and was left with severe brain damage.
Three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father’s casket
in Washington on Nov. 25, 1963, three days after the president
was assassinated in Dallas. His widow Jacqueline Kennedy (center)
and daughter Caroline were accompanied by the late president’s
brothers Edward and Robert.
Even the relief over the success of the Kennedy trio in Washington was short lived. Within five years Ted Kennedy had lost both brothers to assassinations. His own presidential aspirations ended in 1969 when his car plunged off a bridge into the water. While he was able to save himself his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned.
Somehow the mythical brilliance of Camelot survived all of these tragedies and scandals. Even the spate of exposé books down the years that revealed the dark side of the JFK era: the affairs, deception, illnesses, links to the mafia, could do nothing to dent the Kennedy glamor.
Nov. 1962: Edward Kennedy, at the age of 30, as he waves to party workers in Boston with his wife Joan after his election as Democratic US Senator for Massachusetts.
The clan always had two faces, one beautiful and the other ugly. It is only in this way that it could so perfectly personify America’s love-hate relationship with itself.
In the meantime Ted Kennedy plugged away in the Senate, mastering the balance between boozing and politics. He accepted his role as senior advisor, as the “lion of the senate,” struggled with all his might to restore his reputation with his political accomplishments, which soon overshadowed those of his dead brothers, though he never achieved their level of fame.
Another Dream Snuffed Out
The world’s unending obsession with the Kennedys eventually focused on another member of the clan: John F. Kennedy Jr., JFK’s son. After several years as a playboy he married publicist Carolyn Bessette in 1996. “John John,” whose salute to his father’s coffin seared his image into the nation’s consciousness, had the best prospects of combining the opposite poles of the Kennedy cosmos — the private and the political, the mundane and the powerful. But this dream was also snuffed out prematurely. In July 1999 Kennedy’s light aircraft went down in Long Island Sound, his wife and sister-in-law died with him.
So there are no natural heirs left. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bobby’s eldest daughter, buried her political ambitions in 2002 with a failed candidacy for governor of Maryland. Her brother Bobby Jr. has devoted himself to environmental protection. Ted’s son Patrick sits in the House of Representatives but has little charisma. Ted’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who acted as the family matriarch after the death of his mother Rose, died on Aug. 11.
Shriver’s well known daughter Maria Shriver is not interested in running for office. The years she has spent at the side of her husband, Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, seem to have been enough for her.
‘The Elephant in the Room’
And so in May 2008 the three remaining potential leaders rushed to Ted Kennedy’s bedside: Joe Kennedy II, Bobby’s eldest son, Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s last surviving child, and Ted Kennedy’s wife Vicki. The rivalry between Joe and Vicki was said to be palpable, even in this somber atmosphere. “Joe vied with Vicki about who was in charge,” someone who was present told Vanity Fair. “The elephant in the room was the question of succession,” recalled another.
In the end Ted Kennedy decided that Caroline should be his political heir. She was supposed to take over the Senate seat of Hillary Clinton, who was about to be named secretary of state by the newly elected President Barack Obama. Caroline grudgingly accepted and then ruined her chances through her obvious reluctance to be in the public eye. By January she had withdrawn her candidacy.
“We have lost the irreplaceable center of our family,” the Kennedys said in an unsigned statement after Ted’s death. Up until now it has always been their sad tradition that the surviving brother give the graveside speech for the one who has just passed away. “Who should deliver the eulogy for the last of the four Kennedy brothers?” asked Kennedy biographer Thurston Clarke on the Web site the Daily Beast.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, JFK’s widow, with Teddy in 1986.
He had no answer.
See Related: SENATOR TED KENNEDY PASSES AT AGE 77
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