The last time I saw Ted Kennedy he was, in Tom Wolfe's phrase, "A man in full." It was Labor Day 2007, on Cape Cod, and he was singing and laughing hugely through one of the those parody songs that folks compose for friends' birthdays. He was great, lit up the place.
He was free at last, I thought. He had the right job and the right wife. He was free of the presidential ambitions forced on him by others, especially by his dead brothers; he was free of being a Kennedy. He was what he was meant to be, a great senator. The great senators stand for something, and they stay a long time and get things done. He had a mission, making health care an American right, and too many friends to count.
I followed him in the 1970s, at a time people still thought he would be president one day. I was not one of those people; my gut told me he believed the job would crack him -- or get him killed. Looking back at my notes then, this is what I found:
"No scholar, he has people to do that for him ... but on any given day he can absorb two 20-pound briefcases of memos and background papers, take a couple of dozen verbal briefings ranging from 30 seconds to an hour, handle a dozen confrontational situations with other senators, reporters or bureaucrats trying to make their bones by trapping him, juggle the egos of 50 talented staffers and ex-officio advisers, interrogate the presidents of four drug companies and their counsel about their business, debate Sen. John McClellan about the death penalty and Sen. Jesse Helms about handgun production in the South, read a half-dozen newspapers, remember 500 faces and names, and be canny and witty at dinner. You try it."
He had many faults, too, and because of who he was we learned a great deal about them. He tended to feel sorry for himself, particularly when he was younger, telling me once he had to work four times as hard as anyone else because he was a Kennedy. Give me a break, I thought. But I always remembered and agreed with something another senator, a Republican, said to me in those days: "Whatever you think of Teddy's private morality, he is a publicly moral man."
I was often asked whether I intended to do a book on Teddy. I always answered, "I'm not a novelist."
There were just too many plot turns for me. If I had, however, done a book on the senator, it would have begun with a story told to me by a New York politician, Matthew Troy, another engaging Irishman who become borough president of Queens and also went to jail. Troy and Kennedy became friends during Army basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Teddy had just been thrown out of Harvard for cheating; he had another student take a Spanish test for him. Spoiled rich people do things like that.
So Teddy joined the army, a kind of public penance. He had a goal, said Troy, to break the obstacle course record at Benning. He practiced day and night -- and he did it! Next stop: the Korean war. But as the two of them stood on the dock, a jeep pulled up and told Private Kennedy he was being reassigned -- to Paris, as a member of Gen. Eisenhower's honor guard.
I wonder how that happened? A phone call from daddy, Troy guessed.
Ah, the ups and downs of the privileged class. God love 'em -- or at least let them get away with it.
Sen. Kennedy ended up on a high no one ever thought he would reach. The United States Senate was another obstacle course where he set records. Someone said that many men grow up wanting to go into politics, but the Kennedys went into politics and then grew up. That was certainly true of Teddy.