The enigmatic Kennedys

August 27, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Aug 28 – America has its Bush clan and the Bill and Hillary Clinton double act, but nothing matches the power, glamor and tragedy of the Kennedys – a political dynasty now reeling from the death of its patriarch, Edward.

Even in a country that has seen several instances of elective office being handed down from parent to scion, the Kennedys stood apart as its foremost political family, spawning generations of politicians and power-brokers.

The brain cancer diagnosis handed to Ted Kennedy after he had a seizure in May 2008 shocked Americans but demonstrated the central role the Kennedy mystique has played in US social and political life.

The past year also saw an international outpouring of affection and compassion for the Democratic stalwart.

"Tragedies like this are something that resonate with every family. It humanizes them and makes them more like you and me," said Thomas Whalen, political science professor at Boston University after Kennedy’s illness was announced.

"Teddy" Kennedy was the youngest of nine children born to Rose and Joe Kennedy — patriarchs of a clan that would mark 20th century US history with both triumph and tragedy.

Of four dashing Kennedy brothers, the oldest, Joseph, was killed in a plane crash during World War II.

President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Robert, a US senator, were both felled by assassins’ bullets in episodes that cast shadows over the hope-filled idealism of the 1960s.
In the wake of the tragedies, Edward Kennedy was called upon to carry on the family legacy.
"I think there was a moment, when Bobby died, he became not only the carrier of the political legacy, he became the carrier of the family," said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Ted Kennedy was first elected to the Senate in 1962 at age 30 to take the place of his brother, John, when he became president.

At the time of his death aged 77 late Tuesday, the Massachusetts lawmaker was the third longest-serving senator in US history, behind Senator Robert Byrd and the late senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

He also made a White House run in 1980, but ultimately failed in his bid to challenge then-president Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination.

As a legislator with a half-century of political battles behind him, he carved out a formidable legacy on Capitol Hill, fighting for healthcare reform, civil rights, education and immigration reform.

Known for his thundering voice and ruddy features, Kennedy was the Democratic Party’s elder statesman and a key powerbroker.

He flexed his political muscle last year when he chose to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Kennedy said Obama was best able to carry forward the vision and legacy of the late president JFK.

Admirers said that apart from his illustrious family legacy, the Massachusetts Democrat’s legislative achievements will allow him to be counted among the greatest congressional legislators in US history.

But the family’s history, as well as his own, is studded with scandal and tragedy. Before age slowed him down, Kennedy was known as a cavorter and skirt-chaser, infamous for his drinking and disastrous divorce after a stormy marriage to his first wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy.

He was also dogged throughout his adult life by questions surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker killed in July 1969, when Kennedy’s car plunged off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts.

Kennedy escaped and later received a suspended two-month jail sentence for leaving the scene of the accident.

In 1984, nephew David Kennedy — Robert’s son — died of a drug overdose. In 1991, another nephew — William Kennedy Smith — was tried and acquitted in a spectacular rape trial.

Among other family tragedies, the son of John F. Kennedy, affectionately known to the country as John-John, died, along with his glamorous wife Carolyn, when the light aircraft he was piloting crashed in 1999 into the Atlantic Ocean near their family home on the coast of Massachusetts.

The death of Ted Kennedy leaves his own son Patrick, a member of the Rhode Island state House of Representatives, to carry the political mantle.

Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of John F. Kennedy, pulled out of a bid in January to take the US Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton when she became US secretary of state.

Other members of the clan include Edward’s niece Maria Shriver, a television journalist and wife of actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, a prominent attorney and environmentalist.


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