Teddy Kennedy was the most Kennedy-esque of all his family — excepting Joe snr, of course, who in his ambition, wealth, connections, philandering and personal tragedy was the original and best. But Teddy’s great success, terrible flaws and constant flirtation with tragedy were the perfect Kennedy combination. Jack was a little too diffident, pushed into politics because of the death of Joe Jnr (whom Teddy closely resembled); Bobby was too Catholic; Sargent Shriver was an import anyway, and had too much gravitas. Teddy even managed longevity, a family trait that Jack and Bobby missed. Not even a plane crash could knock off Teddy.
The standard line on him was of great potential — albeit, with the caveat, that it was Kennedy potential i.e. looks and money and the family elan — ruined by Chappaquiddick, as if the death of a young woman — in circumstances that Teddy never properly explained — was significant mainly for cruelling the presidential hopes of America’s first family and the return of Camelot.
In fact, Chappaquiddick was the making of Teddy, and the reason why he dies hailed as “the lion of the Senate”, the sort of label that sounds as if it belongs to an earlier era of US, suitable for a Calhoun, a Webster or a Sumner. Important, too was the trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith (son of the last surviving Kennedy sibling, Jean) in 1991, that led to criticisms that Teddy was wasting his credibility and profile on alcohol and womanising rather than real political achievement. Kennedy got his legislative act together again after that, as he had done after earlier periods of turmoil, continuing to pursue his agenda of civil rights and health-care reform.
Jack had ignored both — along with most domestic issues — because he thought foreign policy, and in particular foreign policy that based on a template equal parts Churchill speech and Ian Fleming novel, far more interesting. Bobby, whose dramatic swerve to the Left in the mid-’60s was part hatred of LBJ, part genuine and part political calculation as to where America was moving, might have been his younger brother’s equal on such matters but like Jack found much of his time occupied by international affairs.
At best, Teddy would have made a mediocre president, assuming he survived — albeit superior to the workaholic micromanager Jimmy Carter. But the late ’70s, economically, would have been an economic disaster regardless of who was in the White House. Instead, Teddy got to build a reputation as a legislator, in the engine room of American domestic policy, the Senate. There are two ways to succeed in the US Senate — outstay rivals for senior committee positions or develop a reputation for building cross-aisle alliances that can pass bills (well, you can also stay for five minutes and fluke your way into the White House, like the incumbent). Teddy did both.
He may not have been the great legislator Johnson was, nor hung around as long as, say, the appalling Strom Thurmond, but he did enough to leave a more substantial legacy than either of his brothers.