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The end of the Kennedy dynasty

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 28 August 2009

Edward Moore Kennedy is dead and with his death so ends arguably the most remarkable political run of any group of siblings in the history of democratic politics. As the youngest child in a fiercely competitive Catholic family consisting of five girls and four boys Teddy Kennedy was destined to be overshadowed. As any Kennedy buff knows, in his early years even the later famous JFK was overshadowed by the first child of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy Jr (Joe Jr), who had been groomed by his ambitious father as the one fated to enter politics. Joe Jr died in 1944 in a plane accident on a bombing mission from England (two other Kennedys have subsequently died in plane crashes and Teddy Kennedy was seriously injured in a plane crash in 1964).

With Joe Jr’s death, John Fitzgerald Kennedy took on the family hopes of having a Kennedy in high office. Every public office JFK ran for brought success, leading to him becoming the youngest elected president in 1960 at the politically tender age of 43. However, the cycle of triumph and tragedy haunted JFK as much as any Kennedy. Many people can remember the date (and moment they first heard) he had been shot and killed on November 22, 1963 in Dallas Texas. Few probably remember the more private loss he and Jacqueline suffered in August of that year when their fourth child died two days after being born prematurely (they had already endured the stillbirth of their first born daughter Arabella).

The next Kennedy son to seek the presidency was the dynamic Robert Francis Kennedy. Bobby is fondly (and rightly) remembered for taking up - after JFK was assassinated - the worthy causes of addressing income and racial inequality in America and ending the war in Vietnam.


However, this late 1960s hero of the political left was in the 1950s a fiercely anti-communist member of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigative team into so called un-American activities. As Attorney-General in his brother’s administration RFK strongly encouraged the use of covert operations in nations with policies deemed unfriendly to the United States. (In fact Tim Weiner’s excellent recent history of the CIA Legacy of Ashes suggests the Kennedy administration was the most frequent user of covert operations abroad of all the Cold War presidencies.) John Kennedy’s death made his brother a more reflective and compassionate man, but the legacy of these changes were never to be seen; like his brother, Bobby was assassinated - just as he had the 1968 Democratic nomination within his grasp.

His wife Ethel Kennedy and nine of their 11 children are still alive today. Best known are his first daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (who was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland) and his son Robert Kennedy Jr. (an environmental campaigner).

Given his two remarkable brothers, Edward Kennedy must have had difficulty getting any political limelight. However, he entered the US Senate earlier than either of his brothers at the age of 30 (the minimum age for a US Senator). Serious Kennedy trivia experts might remember that Ben Smith warmed Teddy’s Senate seat before Teddy was old enough to run in 1962 for the seat vacated by JFK in 1960. Edward Kennedy’s nearly 47-year long Senate career is currently the 13th longest in the history of the US Senate and arguably the most legislatively active of any Senator ever (judged by the number of pieces of legislation he has sponsored).

Kennedy’s interests were principally in the areas of social and health policy where during his time in the US Congress the political pendulum swung from the left-liberal glory years of the Great Society reforms of the 1960s to the Reagan revolution in the 1980s back eventually it seems to another liberal era in American politics.

The 1960s were a time of serious responsibilities for Teddy. Apart from being a father of three children he played a surrogate role as a father figure to the 13 children of his two dead brothers. Tragedy of his own making struck in 1969 on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts when his car went off a bridge into an inlet. His young female passenger Mary Jo Kopechne drowned while he escaped. Kennedy failed to immediately alert authorities to the crash, behaviour that rightly created lingering suspicion about what happened that night and “Chaddaquiddick”, as the event became known, probably prevented him from becoming a Democratic presidential nominee and possibly the second Kennedy president.

In the 1970s numerous political challenges arose for liberals like Kennedy. New social issues and policies created frictions and in response better organised conservative groups started to become a political force to be reckoned with.


One movement that particularly shook Edward Kennedy was the anti-busing movement in Boston. A policy of busing black children from academically underperforming predominately black schools to neighboring predominately white schools was tried in Boston as a way to improve African-American educational outcomes. Parents at the predominately white schools often opposed the policy (some on fairly racist grounds). Other opponents argued that liberals like Teddy Kennedy who supported these policies, but lived in the suburbs where black children were generally not bused to, had no right to engage in social engineering in the inner city. At one famous rally Kennedy rose to speak in defense of busing only to be pelted with rocks and tomatoes by angry white parents. Some of these once reliable FDR and Kennedy working class Democrats would soon become Reagan Democrats (Reagan later switched to the Republicans in 1962).

The 1980s were tough years for Teddy Kennedy; stories and photos of him carousing with younger women often featured in the tabloids after his divorce from his first wife in 1982. Although married since 1958, he attempted to get his marriage annulled by the church so he could remarry - as he did in 1992 - with a full Roman Catholic blessing.

The last decade of his career was his best and rightly earned him the label “the liberal conscience of the Senate”. Unlike many of his Democrat colleagues he did not vote in favor of authorising the 2003 Iraq war. This drew him towards Barack Obama before most other leading Democrats had decided who to support in the 2008 campaign. Ultimately, however, it was ironic that the Kennedy family, so famed for its youthful vigor and zest, was in fact best served in terms of substantive public policy reform by Edward Kennedy as he grew into the role of wise old man of the US Senate.

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First published in ABC's Unleashed on August 27, 2009.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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