The Kennedy who most changed America.

Bringing out the dead.
Aug. 26 2009 7:02 AM

Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

The Kennedy who most changed America.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

"[T]his initial victory for Edward Kennedy is demeaning to the dignity of the Senate and the democratic process."

New York Times editorial, "Little Brother Wins," Sept. 19, 1962.

Talk about inauspicious beginnings. At the tender age of 30, the youngest sibling of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy seemed pathetically unqualified to enter the U.S. Senate. Teddy was the runt of the Kennedy litter. Suspended from Harvard after he'd gotten caught having a football teammate take a Spanish exam in his place, Ted had subsequently been steered by his father away from service in the Korean War, serving instead as a NATO honor guard in Paris and never advancing beyond private first class. "We tried to keep everything more or less equal," a somewhat apologetic Rose Kennedy later said of Ted's upbringing,

but you wonder if the mother and father aren't quite tired when the ninth one comes along. You have to make more of an effort to tell bedtime stories and be interested in swimming matches. There were 17 years between my oldest and youngest child, and I had been telling bedtime stories for 20 years.

By the time of his death at 77, Ted Kennedy was an altogether different person. He'd become "the lion of the Senate"—a master politician who altered the shape of American life more completely than any other member of his storied political family. John F. Kennedy became president and stirred a generation with his call to public service. Robert F. Kennedy nearly became president and exerted greater moral leadership than any presidential candidate since. Ted Kennedy never came close to becoming president—his 1980 primary challenge to incumbent Jimmy Carter was a fiasco—and moral leadership was not his strong suit. But over 47 years he midwifed more positive social change than any other American politician of his time.

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In 1965, Kennedy was floor manager for an immigration bill that ended four decades of preferences for Northern Europeans at the expense of Asians and other groups and, some have argued, paved the way for Barack Obama's presidential victory. In 1972, Kennedy helped shepherd Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in education programs and fostered the expansion of athletic programs for women in high schools and colleges. In 1974, Kennedy sponsored the "post-Watergate amendments" to campaign finance law, limiting the size and sources of private contributions to candidates and creating a public financing system for presidential elections. In 1986, Kennedy advanced key amendments to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, guaranteeing continued health coverage to workers after they lost their jobs. In 1990, Kennedy sponsored the Americans With Disabilities Act, which enacted civil rights protections for the handicapped. In 1997, he sponsored the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which extended medical care to families with children that didn't qualify for Medicaid. Every one of these laws expanded in tangible ways the promise of American life.

Kennedy was best known as the designated guardian of Camelot's flame, but even that role was far less passive than most people suppose. In curating the public memory of his two murdered brothers, Ted, whose politics traveled further leftward than Jack and Bobby's ever did, downplayed their Cold War pragmatism and occasional ruthlessness and emphasized their compassion for the underprivileged and their fellowship with the working class. Although not inaccurate, exactly, this version of the Kennedy legacy made his older brothers seem more like 1970s liberals than they really were and enabled Ted to present his own life's work as more seamlessly a continuation of theirs than it really was. To grasp that truth, here's a thought experiment: Try to imagine the cool, cerebral Sen. John F. Kennedy blowing up Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, as Ted did in 1987. The mind goes blank.

In large part, the difference between Ted and his older brothers was a matter of temperament. The backslapping conviviality of electoral politics came more naturally to Ted than to the more aloof Bobby or Jack—a reflection, perhaps, of the younger brother's closer relationship to his maternal grandfather, John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, a onetime mayor of Boston and old-school pol who danced Irish jigs and sang "Sweet Adeline" at campaign events. A darker side to this lack of inhibition was the criminally irresponsible behavior Ted displayed in leaving the scene of the auto accident where Mary Jo Kopechne died in 1969 and in the boozing and womanizing Kennedy indulged in before he married Victoria Reggie in 1992.

Ted's propensity for partisan bellowing notwithstanding, he was a much less predictable political thinker than is generally understood. It is seldom remembered, for instance, that Kennedy was a prime mover behind deregulation of the airline and trucking industries during the late 1970s—and that some on the left later excoriated him for it. Kennedy also worked closely with President George W. Bush to craft the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which continues to bedevil the teachers' unions (for some good reasons and many bad ones), and on various bills with his improbable Mormon sidekick, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Ted's greatest commitment was to a goal yet to be achieved: universal health care. To the end of his life, Kennedy worked as best he could behind the scenes to shape the current health reform bill, mostly for good, occasionally for ill. It was, Kennedy said, "the cause of my life." In the July 18 Newsweek, Kennedy wrote, "Incremental measures won't suffice anymore." It might be answered that incremental measures are the only kind Congress knows. Ted Kennedy's life demonstrates that isn't true.

AP Video: Edward Kennedy, 1932 - 2009

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.