So the lion of the Senate will roar no more — and any number of DC cocktail waitresses can breathe a little easier today. The hand that steered an armada of bills through eight Senates and played a thousand games of grabass in between has been laid out at last.

The death of Edward Moore Kennedy closes the door on an era reaching back to the end of the 19th century itself and taking in most of what we would consider to be the guts of the 20th. The marriage of his parents, Joe Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, had been the uniting of two powerful Boston Democratic families — their grandfather John “Honey” Fitzgerald had been the first Irish-Catholic mayor of Boston, his nickname indicative of that distinctive voice, smooth, yet biting. Honey Fitz’s political career dated back to 1891, at which time barrels of beer, in place of pork, would be rolled out.

They were leveraged into power by Joe, a man who made his first fortune from bootlegging during the Prohibition, and whose operatives are estimated to have murdered a dozen or more men in the brutal gang wars of the period — after which he decamped to Hollywood to found RKO (famous for producing Citizen Kane, among others) and bed Gloria Swanson and a host of lesser ingénues.

Any hope he had for later public office himself was ruined by his disastrous term as Ambassador to the UK in the late 30s, when his fascistic nature, Irish resentment, anti-communism, and penchant for American isolationism, led him to relentlessly pro-Hitler sentiments at a time when FDR had swung firmly behind Britain — and his forecast of the UK’s inevitable defeat did not play well in the aftermath.

By 1944, one son, Joe Jnr, had been killed in active service, setting the pattern to come, and the family mantle fell to John, seen as lightweight despite his naval service, beset by Addison’s disease, which treated officially and otherwise by testosterone and amphetamines. JFK made his bones on joining Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt, accommodating the racism of southern Democrats, and winning a Pulitzer for a book he didn’t write (Profiles in Courage). His brother Robert lived long enough to have these conservative Democrat machine politics modified somewhat by the upheaval of the ’60s, but never got the chance to put them in practice. Joe Kennedy snr lived long enough — he died in 1969 — to see the mantle fall to his fourth son, barely an afterthought.

That mantle sank in the waters of Lake Chappaquiddick. The death of a female political volunteer in a car he drunkenly piloted into a lake had a grim symmetry with JFK, who had floated his political career by piloting a boat. Teddy had sunk his by floating a car. Would he have won the 1968 election as the youngest President ever — aged 36 — had he taken up the suggestion that he be a draft-in candidate in the shoes of his dead brother Robert?

Maybe not, but who knows? By the time he came round for another tilt — in 1980, against a sitting Democratic President, a rare occurrence indeed — Chappaquiddick had become part of the folklore, and the dark side of Camelot was beginning to cast a shadow over the American psyche. JFK’s gangster connections, his near-disastrous brinkmanship in the Cuban missile crisis, and his inauguration of full-scale commitment to Vietnam had worn off the gloss of the Boston Brahmins, and the great American retreat from a proud progressive “liberalism” was underway.

Nevertheless, he was unassailable in a Senate seat in Massachusetts, and in American fashion, served for 47 years, from the end of the Jim Crow era to the election of Barack Obama, from the depths of the Cold War, to China rising.

The Senate was the saving of him, and of the Kennedy family in general. As other members fell like Flanders recruits, Ted Kennedy powered on. The number of bills he introduced or co-sponsored is staggering — from removing racial quotas on immigration, the first disabilities legislation, bills mandating public funding for cancer care and AIDS, tightened sanctions on apartheid, and dozens of others, the most recent being the No Child Left Behind Act — an attempt to ensure that education in the US did not consist of kids being passed up the grades functionally illiterate and innumerate, and which was gutted by Dubya, and rendered as a mechanism for fixing grades.

There are darker sides too — some will pick his vociferous campaign for Irish independence, even at the height of the PIRA armed struggle, and all the compromises that could have been fought through to a tougher win. And whatever credit one gives him, one has to wonder at the American desire for dynasty at the heart of democracy, its compulsive desire to re-establish all it fought to throw off in 1776.

But whatever the verdict, you can’t help but feel as one does when watching a grand mansion come down, for apartments and a mall. What was this like at its height, you wonder? What world made it? And where are we now?

*For more Kennedy commentary, try the crikey.com.au collection.

Peter Fray

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