It was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1961. President John F. Kennedy was about to address a crowd of over 12,000 enthusiastic supporters. “I will introduce myself,” Jack began, “I am Teddy Kennedy’s brother.” That flippant remark speaks volumes down the years.
My late friend Murray Levin of Boston University wrote a book in 1966, “Kennedy Campaigning.” It was a most unflattering analysis of Ted’s 1962 run for the Senate, and the Kennedys tried to prevent publication. It is hard to recapture the sense of Jack’s hubris in appointing brother Bobby attorney general and holding his old Senate seat for almost 2 years until Ted reached 30 years of age. Levin spoke for many progressives who were outraged at the moves. Just think if George W. Bush had appointed Jeb Bush attorney general and his cousin, Sandy Ellis, to the cabinet. Jack’s actions were the epitome of what the Beacon Hill coatholders liked to call “cute.”
I was at a meeting on health care Capitol Hill in the spring of 1975. It was dominated by Ted Kennedy staffers. Chappaquiddick was six years in the past. Speculation was active that Ted would make a run for the presidency in 1976. There was some desultory discussion of whether it would be possible to move a health care bill along with Gerald Ford in the White House. The consensus was that this was not a great idea. My overall impression of the meeting was of tiredness and frustration. Some of the staff in the room had been working on extending health care availability (“Medicare for everyone” was just coming into vogue) for ten years at that point. And it would be almost twenty more years before health care got another real chance under Bill Clinton in 1993, and almost thirty-five years under Obama. It is certainly an accomplishment to have persisted in the goal of creating a national health plan worthy of the country and its place in the world for over 40 years after the signing into law of Medicare in 1965. The bottom line, however, is that it didn’t get done and Ted Kennedy must share in that failure.
Adam Clymer concludes his excellent biography of Ted in a curiously flat way, comparing Ted’s Senate career with Hubert Humphrey and Robert A. Taft in influence and accomplishment. Certainly Humphrey’s championship of civil rights and Taft’s “Mr. Republican” image are on a par with Ted as a champion of services for poor people like the minimum wage, and his role as a national symbol of moderate progressivism. Like Ted, both Humphrey and Taft fell short of realizing much of their substantive policy goals. Tom Wicker, writing of Jack, in 1964, noted that “Perhaps he knew all along that events would control, action overwhelm, means fail to reach ends.” Jack, an unromantic, professional politician, might agree that this applies to his brother Teddy as well.