- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy brings down the final curtain not just on one man’s career but on a five-decade docudrama in which the triumphs and tragedies of a single family seized the public imagination and influenced American political life.

His generation of Kennedys and their spouses was the closest thing America has seen to its own royalty, epitomized by visions of virile and handsome brothers tossing a football in an age of innocence, long before Watergate laid bare the sins of ego and power at the pinnacle of political power.

It was a political era that spanned storybook weddings and assassinations, Jackie fashions and Chappaquiddick - elements that spawned the storybook notion of Camelot and immortalized it in an almost mythical dynasty.

That dynasty was virtually set on the wedding day of Joseph Fitzpatrick Kennedy and Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald in 1914. Joseph, a prominent businessman and Harvard graduate who made a fortune as a stock market and commodity investor, was one of the top figures in the Democratic Party. A major backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential bid in 1932, he was rewarded with an appointment as the first chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He later became ambassador to Britain.

Rose was the daughter of a politically connected Boston family headed by John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the city’s mayor and a one-time congressman known for his gift of gab. Her father became allies with Patrick J. Kennedy, Joseph’s father. When Joseph and Rose wed, they cemented the bloodlines of two Irish families into a political dynasty.

Based in Hyannis Port, Mass., the couple had nine children in 17 years, establishing a remarkably engaged family unit that some described as impossibly beautiful and smart. They hotly debated the news at the dinner table, and competed in everything from intellectual exercises to sports.

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The expectation of greatness - of success and service - became so ingrained in each of them that it was almost taken for granted that they would make their mark on U.S. history.

Check out the Washington Times interactive Remembering Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Joe Kennedy Jr., the eldest son, was thought the most likely to become president, but the World War II pilot was killed when his plane blew up while he was flying a secret mission over the English Channel in 1944.

The baton was passed to brother John F. Kennedy, two years younger and known as Jack, who was elected president in 1960. JFK and his wife, Jacqueline, moved into the White House with daughter Caroline and son John Jr., who was born three weeks after the election. America quickly became captivated, and the notion of Camelot, if not yet the name, started to take hold.

Check out more video coverage of Sen. Kennedy, here.

The name emerged after the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963, the most shocking and public of all the Kennedy tragedies. Author Theodore White said Jacqueline repeatedly played the hit song “Camelot” after her husband’s death. She said the song, from the theatrical musical of the same name, had been her husband’s favorite, and she was drawn to the final lyrics: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Mr. White immortalized this in a Life magazine article and the Kennedy version of Camelot was born. For good measure, Mr. White later wrote that Camelot portrayed “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

With JFK’s death, the crown to Camelot passed to Robert F. Kennedy - known to most Americans as just “Bobby” - who had established himself as a prominent public figure while serving under his brother as U.S. attorney general.

Click here to see a timeline of Mr. Kennedy’s life.

In that post, Robert Kennedy became one of the most powerful attorneys general in the nation’s history, crusading against organized crime. He won election to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964 and ran for president in 1968.

The fervor grew among supporters for a resurgence of Camelot, a return to the idyllic days that had been shattered by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. Who knew that the same fate awaited Robert, assassinated after a campaign speech in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968?

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And then came “Teddy.” The youngest of Joe and Rose’s nine children, he stood in the shadow of his gifted brothers and carried the hopes and ambitions of a family that would not settle for less than outstanding achievement. Dogged by a series of woes, including his role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, he never quite reached the heights of his brothers. Yet he eventually left a legislative record that may have had a more lasting impact on American life than either of his brothers.

“I have to admire that at the end, here he was fighting for the same things that he believed in from the beginning,” said author Gerald Posner, who writes about political and government scandals.

“Some politicians try to cash in on public service, but here is Ted Kennedy, after decades of service, absolutely upright and honest. He could have left the Senate, but he carried on through so much, and fought until the end for what he believed in.”

Toward the end of his 77 years, Mr. Kennedy was hailed as “a natural heir to a legacy,” an “indispensable patriarch,” a surrogate father to a bevy of fatherless Kennedy children and for those who knew him, a “rock” on which his clan leaned - even as it was diminished by notoriety and heartache. Some now argue that living up to the Camelot myth was too heavy a burden, even for a man accustomed to repeated loss.

“In death, some people will call him the lost president,” said William McKeen, an author and professor who studies the intersection of journalism, history and popular culture. “He was the sure thing that wasn’t.”

Yet the nation could not get enough of Ted and all the players with his family name, Mr. McKeen said. He cited the ongoing fascination with Kennedy relatives such as Maria Shriver, married to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former movie star; Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost a bid as Maryland’s governor; and the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who never entered politics but whose wedding and fatal plane crash kept him in the celebrity spotlight for years.

“The press has had a fascination with that family - a lurid obsession that was the equivalent of political porn … following them through the alcoholism, the Palm Beach rape allegations [of cousin William Kennedy Smith], the accidents, the drugs and the drugs …,” Mr. McKeen said. “Ted Kennedy fought his own battle of excesses, but when things were at their worst, he was often at his best.”

Mr. McKeen recalls attending an event as a young reporter with Mr. Kennedy campaigning in Indiana in 1972 on behalf of George McGovern and U.S. Rep. Andrew Jacobs, who was facing a tough re-election bid.

“The crowd was there for Kennedy,” Mr. McKeen remembers, describing how Ted upstaged the very folks for whom he was stumping. “What a pro. I thought, ‘This dude oozes politics from his pores.’ ”

Mr. Kennedy eventually ran for the White House but lost the 1976 Democratic nomination to upstart Jimmy Carter, whose victory displaced Mr. Kennedy in history and tarnished the Kennedy aura of political invincibility.

“Looking back, you can see it as a farewell to the old days of Kennedy politics and his public realization that he would not fulfill what those of us in the press often called the family destiny,” Mr. McKeen said.

“It was never the right time. For two generations he was a president in waiting. By the 1980s, he had lost the charisma war to Ronald Reagan and settled into his senatorial rut as the former boy wonder fading into his role of aging happy warrior.”

Unlike those of his siblings who died suddenly - in war, by accident or by assassination - Ted had time to reconcile himself to his role, Mr. McKeen said. “As the patriarch by default, it was his sad duty to preside over the tragedies and excesses of the whole Kennedy bloodline. It was the price of longevity.”

Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University, called Mr. Kennedy “a remnant of Camelot.”

“He carried that name and physical appearance, that Kennedy look, but I would have to say that the Camelot era has passed a long time ago. It was really a short period of time during the John F. Kennedy era.

“There were moments when it appeared that Camelot might make a resurgence,” he said. “When Bobby won the California primary in 1968, but then he was shot and the second resurgence of Camelot never really happened.”

The family image took another blow when Jacqueline Kennedy, long viewed as the bereaved and stylish widow - queen of Camelot - remarried to a Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis, angering some who had hailed her family devotion as iconic.

Though she was the epitome of style and dignity for many, her remarriage - to a foreigner, no less - was a signal that the Camelot utopia was fading into the sunset - a pall on the fantasy world the Kennedy family and its adoring media had cultivated.

“It’s true that Teddy, being the other of the big three Kennedy brothers who still survived, stood for that ideology and vision that went back to the Camelot era,” said Mr. Thompson, “but he was obviously continuing to function politically in a very different era than we were in 1960.

“The whole Kennedy story across the years was not only the idealism that was associated with Camelot, but it was also the kind of continuing Greek tragedy, this feeling of the curse on the house of Kennedy.”

The “curse,” as it has been called, did not end with Ted’s generation of brothers and sisters.

In 1973, Ted’s son Edward Kennedy Jr. lost his right leg to cancer and Joseph P. Kennedy II had a car accident that left his female passenger paralyzed. David Kennedy died in 1984 from a drug overdose in a Palm Beach hotel room. And in 1997, Michael Kennedy died in a skiing accident in Aspen.

One of the most gut-wrenching of the family tragedies was when John F. Kennedy Jr. perished along with his wife and her sister in a plane crash in 1999 off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Nine years later, the senior senator from Massachusetts was diagnosed with brain cancer - the final insurmountable strike against the family’s de facto leader.

“It is tragic that Ted is not well enough to be fighting for his signature issue: health care,” Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Florida’s Lynn University, said before Mr. Kennedy’s death.

“Just as a bill on health care comes closer to passing than at any time in history, his health failed him,” Mr. Watson said. “So many members of Congress have been show horses, but Ted’s record of work … has been prolific and without rival. …

“In this way, he is the epitome of the Kennedy family, a family that, as many have noted, seems cursed, but a family also defined by mystique and a burning passion for public service.”

Whether the next generations of Kennedys rise to the levels of Ted and his brothers remains to be seen.

Wilfred McClay, who serves as the Simon distinguished professor in Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, said he has great empathy for the surviving family members who soldier on with the family name but with less of the political drive and skill.

“I think part of the problem is we have put this weight of expectation on them and almost without exception they have not been able to live up to it and they all know it,” he said.

“It’s been hard for them to find their way, particularly the men. It doesn’t mean that some other member of the next generation isn’t going to go on and do something good, but I think they, as a family, are stymied for now. I think the family has lost its panache.”

He points to political losses by Mrs. Kennedy Townsend, who failed in her race for Maryland governor, and the bobbling of the U.S. Senate nomination in New York by JFK daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who seemed a shoo-in but fell from grace at the first sign of real opposition.

“I think the distance that she fell was emblematic of the withering away of Camelot. It was almost a fait accompli that she was in, and then she was interviewed and she sounded like a Valley Girl. All of a sudden, this Kennedy patina of sophistication and brilliance was shattered, and she was standing there like this very privileged person who didn’t belong.

“This marked the end of something, sort of this notion of the Kennedys as an exceptional family. It was sad.”

Younger generations of Americans, Mr. McClay said, know little of the Camelot legacy. The adulatory press coverage that embellished and protected the early Kennedy image has given way to heavier scrutiny in an era when idealism is relative and tabloid celebrity is the norm.

Camelot, as it converged with the Kennedy family, was “a particular moment in the American relationship to mass media that I now think has gone,” he said.

Mr. Watson, the author and presidential scholar, agrees that Mr. Kennedy’s passing is a watershed moment in American political history.

“I think the Kennedy dynasty ends with Ted,” he said. “The next generation of Kennedy family members … never made the impact of Joe, John, Bobby and Ted. However, because of the Kennedy mystique, the family’s names and contributions will endure. I think some will always long for the magical moments of Camelot, but I think the Kennedy family has now moved more into part of American popular culture.”

Mr. McClay said the remaining members of the family will never share the political prominence of Ted and his brothers. “They may make their own way in public life and be doing admirable things outside of Washington, but Teddy was clearly the last of that bunch in many ways,” he said.

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