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Lion of the Senate

Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.

William Shakespeare — Twelfth Night

Shakespeare would have had a field day with the Kennedy brothers.

There were four of them, driven into a life of public service by their Lear-like father, Joseph, who pushed them to grab for power that was beyond his grasp. Joe Kennedy instilled in his sons a relentless drive that left an indelible imprint on the course of American history for more than half a century. The Kennedy brothers also inherited first-class political genes from their mother, Rose, whose father John F. Fitzgerald had been the beloved mayor of Boston known to all as ”Honey Fitz.”

In the first four acts of this Shakespearean epic, all-too-brief moments of exhilarating triumph were enveloped by overwhelming tragedy. This poignant history is familiar to all Americans of a certain age, seen here in snapshots:

Joseph Jr., the oldest, volunteered for a dangerous World War II mission involving an aircraft loaded with explosives and died when the plane blew up over Europe. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a skinny and sickly boy who wanted to become a writer, joined the Navy and was commanding a small patrol boat in the Pacific when PT-109 was cut in half by a Japanese ship and sunk. Jack swam with an injured sailor on his back and shepherded his crew to a deserted island. Then he swam to a nearby island and left a message carved in a coconut with the natives that resulted in the crew’s rescue.

Papa Joe’s buddies in the news biz magnified his son’s wartime exploits into the stuff of legend, fertile fodder for the launching of a post-war political career. With dashing good looks and a scintillating staccato speaking style—and his father’s connections—Jack rocketed to the top of the political charts. In 1960, the 43-year-old Kennedy, an untested junior senator whose resume consisted primarily of his family name and fortune, became the youngest man elected president of the United States and the first Catholic to hold the post.

The 35th president soon was tested, and when the chips were down President Kennedy passed the test. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear Armaggedon, Kennedy refused to be bullied by his generals into a potentially catastrophic invasion; for thirteen days, he coolly presided over a high-stakes diplomatic and military minuet that ultimately produced a face-saving way for the Soviet Union to back down. JFK also had the political courage to confront the moral challenge of the civil rights movement.

Then, a sunny November afternoon in 1963 was transformed into one of the darkest days in American history when the 46-year-old president was gunned down and died in his wife’s arms as they rode in a motorcade through Dallas.

Joe Kennedy’s third son, Robert Francis, had been his brother’s campaign manager and closest advisor. As Attorney General, Bobby launched a crusade against the Mafia and put the power of the U.S. government behind the enforcement of civil rights. In his brief time at the Justice Department, RFK made such an impact they eventually named the building after him.

Bobby Kennedy was consumed with grief over his brother’s murder, amplified by the suspicion that his own instigations against the Mob and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro may have sparked the assassination. He easily won election to New York’s seat in the U.S. Senate in 1964, but seemed to be wrestling with Hamlet-like indecision over whether to reach for national leadership.

Finally, the endless quagmire of the Vietnam War induced Bobby in 1968 to challenge his brother’s successor as president, Lyndon Johnson. Moments after he made a victory speech in a Los Angeles hotel on the night of the California primary election, he was shot by a deranged Palestinian in the hotel kitchen. He died the next day.

The last Kennedy brother was born on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. Jack wanted to name him George Washington Kennedy, but his parents settled on Edward Moore, and his brothers called him Teddy.

Nobody took Ted Kennedy seriously when he was tapped at age 30 to fill JFK’s vacant Senate seat in 1962. The only thing of note Teddy had done before joining the Senate was to narrowly avoid getting thrown out of Harvard when he asked a friend to take an exam for him.

Until 1968, Ted labored quietly in his brothers’ huge shadow, learning the rules of the Senate club as a junior member. Then, a nation paralyzed with grief over the second Kennedy assassination turned to the surviving brother and anointed him as the president-in-waiting. The 36-year-old Ted Kennedy knew he wasn’t ready. He was wrestling with inner demons unleashed by the tragic deaths of his three older brothers. He resisted the call to pick up the fallen standard.

The demons got the upper hand on a July night in 1969. As the men his brother Jack had sent to the moon began their triumphant descent to the lunar surface, Ted drove his car off a wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. A female companion who was not his wife drowned and Kennedy did not report the accident for eight hours. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene and received a suspended sentence.

Shakespeare might have chosen to end the saga here, leaving us an epic tragedy of hubris punished with a harrowing fall from grace, but Ted Kennedy did not.

He went on to serve in the United States Senate for 47 years and became the most dynamic legislator of this or any time. As the remaining patriarch of the Kennedy clan, he was father and surrogate father to 13 children, and by all accounts did a remarkable job in that role as well. He championed human rights and became a voice for the disadvantaged, picking up where his brothers had left off.

The list of landmark bills that Sen. Kennedy ushered into law through the force of his personality is far too long to recount in this space, but here’s a sampling: the 18-year-old voting age, the abolition of the draft, the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, post-Watergate campaign finance laws, federal funding for community health care centers, the National Cancer Institute, Meals on Wheels for seniors, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, extending health care coverage to disadvantaged children, the renewals of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing law, No Child Left Behind.

The list goes on and on, more than 1,000 bills in all.

Stricken with brain cancer a year ago, Ted Kennedy etched his own profile in courage as he continued to serve in good cheer, captain his beloved sailboat, and gracefully passed his family’s political torch to a new standard bearer, Barack Obama.

Last week, as Sen. Kennedy neared the end, President Obama awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Today, he lies in state in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library overlooking Boston Harbor and the sea that he loved to sail.

On Saturday, he will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to his brothers.

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