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Ted Kennedy

U.S. Senator

Edward Moore Kennedy

Edward Moore Kennedy was born in Dorchester,, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1932, the youngest son of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Because his father frequently moved the large family with him to various diplomatic postings, "Ted," as he was commonly known, attended 10 different preparatory schools in the U.S. and England before finishing at Milton Academy near Boston in 1950. Like his brothers before him, Ted went on to Harvard University, but was expelled before the end of his first year after getting another student to take his Spanish examination. He subsequently enlisted in the Army and spent two years at NATO headquarters in Paris before being discharged as a Private First Class in 1953. Now eligible to re-enter Harvard, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree (majoring in government) in 1956, graduated from the International Law School at The Hague, Netherlands, in 1958, graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1959, and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar later that same year. His political career began in 1958, when he managed his brother John's Senate re-election campaign.

John's election to the presidency in 1960 left vacant a Senate seat the Kennedy family assumed belonged to them. Brother Robert was the family's chosen successor, but he chose the post of Attorney General instead. Since Edward was still two years shy of the 30-year minimum age for Senate service, family friend Benjamin A. Smith II was tabbed to hold the seat until another special election could be held in 1962. Edward used the time to travel the world and work as an assistant district attorney of Suffolk County. In the appointed year Smith dutifully stepped aside so Edward could be elected, and Edward officially entered the Senate on November 6, 1962. He was subsequently re-elected seven times and served a total of 46 years; only two other Senators, Strom Thurmond and Robert C. Byrd, served longer.

Although Kennedy ultimately became a major force in the Senate, his early years in that body were full of difficulty. He was presiding over the Senate when, on November 22, 1963, a wire service ticker in the lobby relayed the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. A heavy favorite for re-election the following year, he was on his way to the state convention that was to renominate him when his light plane crashed in a storm near Westfield, killing the pilot and an aide and leaving him with back and neck problems that plagued him the rest of his life. Despite being hospitalized and unable to campaign for six months, he was re-elected by a wide margin.

When Kennedy returned to the Senate floor in 1965 he did so with a vigor that had not been present before. Having spent his convalescence developing positions on immigration, health care and civil rights, he promptly entered his first major legislative battle. President Lyndon B. Johnson's Voting Rights Act was up for debate, and Kennedy sought to strenghten it with an amendment that would have outlawed poll taxes. Although the amendment ultimately failed by four votes, Kennedy established himself as a legislator who could prepare a good case and argue it effectively.

Initially reluctant to oppose the war in Vietnam, Kennedy became a very vocal opponent after brother Robert decided to seek the presidency on an anti-war platform. Robert was assassinated on June 5, 1968, as he celebrated his victory in the California primary. Edward was in San Francisco at another victory celebration when he got the news. After the funeral, he withdrew from public life and spent several months in seclusion before returning to the Senate floor. When the 1968-69 session opened he challenged Senator Russell B. Long for majority whip. With support from fellow liberals, he edged Long by five votes to become the youngest whip in Senate history.

On July 18, 1969, Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island (off Martha's Vineyard) with several women who had been aides to Robert. After leaving the party around midnight with Mary Jo Kopechne, he made a wrong turn on his way to the ferry landing and drove the car off a narrow bridge on an isolated road. The car sank in eight feet of water; Kennedy was able to escape, but Kopechne drowned. Kennedy did not report the accident for almost 10 hours, explaining at that time that he had suffered a concussion in the crash and had become so exhausted trying to rescue Miss Kopechne that he had gone to bed. A week after the accident he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a suspended two-month sentence. Kennedy's guilty plea failed to satisfy the general public, however, as many questions surrounding the accident went unanswered -- Had he been drinking? (He did admit to having had two beers at the party.) Could Miss Kopechne have been saved if he had gone for help immediately? And, most important to many, why was Miss Kopechne in the car to begin with? At the height of the controversy Kennedy went on television to ask Massachusetts voters whether he should resign from office. His constituents responded with an emphatic "no," and he was elected to a second full term the following year.

Police and spectators examine Senator Kennedy's car.
scene of Senator Kennedy's car crash

Wearing a neck brace, Senator Kennedy attends the funeral of Mary Jo Kopechne.
Senator Kennedy attends Kopechne's funeral

Kennedy spent the next ten years strengthening his position in Congress and expanding his national position. In the Senate, he pushed to end the war in Vietnam, then concentrated on his favorite legislative issues, especially civil rights, health, taxes, criminal laws and deregulation of the airline and trucking industries. He also traveled the country, making speeches that kept him in the public eye. In 1972 there was talk of nominating him for President, but he declined the "offer," as he did Hubert Humphrey's request that he be his running mate. In 1973, his son Edward Jr. developed a bone cancer that ultimately cost him his leg. The following year, Kennedy said he would not be a candidate for President in 1976, and was subsequently elected to his third full term in the Senate.

Personal difficulties struck Kennedy again in 1978, when his wife of 24 years, Joan Bennnett, moved out of the couple's McLean, Virginia, home. Mrs. Kennedy said she wanted to "explore options other than being a housewife and mother." She also acknowledged that she had a problem with alcohol and that she was finding it increasingly difficult to be the wife of a politician. Although Mr. Kennedy publicly maintained that he still loved his wife and that they were trying to work through her alcohol problem, the two ultimately divorced, in 1982.

Although initially supportive of Jimmy Carter's presidency, by 1978 Kennedy was publicly criticizing the President's economic policies. By 1979 many Democrats were urging Kennedy to run against Carter, and he officially announced his candidacy on November 9 of that year. Although Kennedy had by then become a strong voice in the Senate, he lacked campaign experience as he had never faced any major opposition in previous elections. As a result, his campaign was poorly planned and appeared to lack a clear political or policy premise. He won the New York and California primaries, but failed to wrest the nomination from Carter. Returned to the Senate by Massachusetts in 1982, there was some talk of Kennedy making another run at the presidency in 1984, but he quashed the speculation almost immediately.

With all talk of a possible White House bid ended for good, Kennedy devoted the rest of his life to his Senate career. He had already led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation. He subsequently became deeply involved in renewals of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing law of 1968, helped establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, built federal support for community health care centers, increased cancer research financing, helped create the Meals on Wheels program, and was a major proponent of a health and nutrition program for pregnant women and infants. Kennedy also led Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, voted against the Iraq war, and opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. His personal life was rejuvenated in 1992, when he married Victoria Ann Reggie.

On May 17, 2008, Kennedy entered Cape Cod Hospital after suffering a seizure. Three days later doctors diagnosed the Senator with malignant glioma, a type of brain tumor. He underwent surgery on June 2, and spent the rest of the year recuperating. On August 25, opening night of the Democratic National Convention, Kennedy gave an emotional speech in support of Barack Obama. On January 20, 2009, during Barack Obama's post-inauguration luncheon at the U.S. Capitol, Kennedy suffered another seizure and was rushed to the hospital. His doctors said the seizure was the result of "simple fatigue," and Kennedy spent several weeks convalescing in Florida before returning to the Senate. On August 20, Kennedy made a sudden request to change Massachusetts state law, allowing for his swift replacement. The note to state leaders asked for an interim Senator to be appointed in the case that his seat was suddenly vacated. Although his aides insisted that Kennedy's request had nothing to do with his health, he lost his battle with brain cancer on August 25, 2009. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and was survived by his wife; two sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. and Patrick J. Kennedy; a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen.; two stepchildren, Curran Raclin and Caroline Raclin; and four grandchildren.


The Biography Channel
Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate
New York Times Obituary

See Also

John F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Hubert Humphrey
Jimmy Carter
Robert Bork

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> Late 20th Century >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on February 11, 2019.