09/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Ted Kennedy's Early Career

I can't believe it's been 15 months since Ted Kennedy announced that he had inoperable brain cancer. Like so many Americans, I feel that my life has been inextricably linked to the Kennedys since childhood. My very first memory is of JFK's assassination when I was only four years old. For almost three decades, my mother was the receptionist at the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart in Chicago. She often took calls from crazed Kennedy fans on the anniversary of the assassinations, and she turned over to the authorities gifts that arrived in her office intended for various Kennedy family members.

When my mother got sick with lung cancer in 1999, it was a Kennedy who pulled some strings to get her moved to a better hospital and I will always be grateful for that. Two months after my mother's death I sat glued to the television watching the frantic search for John Kennedy, Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law in the waters off Cape Cod. I kept reaching for the phone to call my mother who would have been blown away by that unexpected tragedy.

Uncle Teddy was again called into service to deliver a moving eulogy at John's memorial service a few days later, just as he had done at the funerals of his two older brothers. About his nephew he said, "We dared to think that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But, like his father, he had every gift but length of years."

When he first announced his diagnosis last year, I found it very touching to hear the reactions of his colleagues in Washington. I was especially moved to hear the heartfelt comments by some of the Republican senators. Though ideological opponents to Kennedy's liberal views and programs, it was easy to sniff through the layers of politics and see the true respect and admiration that lay at the foundation of some of these relationships.

How rare that is these days. Orrin Hatch just issued a statement relating that:

today America lost a great elder statesman, a committed public servant, and leader of the Senate. And today I lost a treasured friend. Ted Kennedy was an iconic, larger than life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated. Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy's name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber.

Nancy Reagan said the following:

Given our political differences, people are sometimes surprised how close Ronnie and I have been to the Kennedy family. In recent years, Ted and I found our common ground in stem cell research, and I considered him an ally and a dear friend. I will miss him.

Kennedy has been serving in the U.S. Senate since 1962. He's been there longer than anyone in history except for Robert Byrd who wept openly when he first heard the news about Kennedy's illness. "I hope and pray that an all-caring, omnipotent God will watch over Ted and keep Ted here for us and for America," Byrd said at the time. "Ted, my dear friend, I love you, and I miss you."

Ted Kennedy was clearly one of the most formidable senators who ever served this country, whether or not you agree with his policies. It's hard to imagine a U.S. Congress without Kennedy in a leadership role. But it wasn't always that way.

I was wondering how Ted Kennedy's first Senate campaign, which occurred when I was two years old, was greeted by the politicians of the day and the rest of the country. Looking at the newspaper archives from the early 1960s, I soon learned that his first candidacy was not met with universal excitement. Ted Kennedy threw his hat in the ring for the U.S. Senate the minute he was old enough to do so, when he turned 30 in 1962. His rival in the contentious Democratic primary was Edward J. McCormack, Jr., the popular Attorney General of Massachusetts. At the beginning, McCormack seemed like such a shoo-in that Kennedy's campaign was considered a joke.


Rumors circulated that young Teddy would drop out of the race. An article on May 7, 1962, stated:

The ambition of Edward (Ted) Kennedy, 30-year-old brother of the President, to be a U.S. Senator is fizzling out fast. With approximately three-fourths of the 1,763 delegates to the June 7-9 Massachusetts Democratic endorsement convention already selected, young Ted is running far behind Atty. Gen. Edward (Eddie) McCormack--858 to 42.

All signs point to McCormack, 39-year-old nephew of Speaker John McCormack, not only maintaining this 8 to 5 margin but probably even bettering it. If young Kennedy doesn't pull out of the race by the time the convention meets, he will do so immediately afterward.

But there were already signs that the Kennedy family was pulling out all the stops to get their boy the votes he needed.

Kennedy henchmen are striving mightily behind the scenes to swing delegates to young Kennedy. Delegates are daily reporting heavy pressure from White House sources.

McCormack's slogan during the campaign became "I Back Jack, But Teddy Ain't Ready." During one debate, McCormack confronted Kennedy with the charge, "Teddy, if your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a farce." Other prominent politicians agreed:

Former President Harry Truman is making no secret he does not approve of Ted's candidacy. The Missourian is keeping hands off this fight. But although assiduously courted by the Kennedys, Mr. Truman, with characteristic candor, is frankly critical of Ted's aspiring to the Senate on what amounts to no other ground than that he is the President's brother.

An Independence visitor asked the one-time President what he thought of the McCormack-Kennedy race. "I hope Eddie wins," was the instant and emphatic reply. "He is entitled to the nomination. He has earned it by conscientious hard work, and by twice being elected attorney general by big majorities. Ted has never run for anything or done very much of anything. His family ought to call him in and pull him out of that race. He doesn't belong in it. He ought to earn his political spurs first before running for the U.S. Senate."

Kennedy headline3

Yep, the odds were stacked against poor Ted but he had one thing in his pocket that Eddie McCormack could only dream of--the Kennedy charisma, power, mystique, and millions. There was nothing McCormack could do but watch his numbers plunge in fast order. Ted Kennedy won the party's nomination by a landslide.

Still, he had a lot of vocal critics leading up to the general election including many public figures and even a prominent Roman Catholic priest who stated in no uncertain terms:

"The candidacy of this boy is both preposterous and insulting." The statement refers particularly to Ted's singular lack of qualifications for the U.S. Senate and to the pressure tactics being used to get him elected.

"When the 1960 Presidential race ended and Ted returned to Massachusetts, he appeared to be a young, clean and active prospect for some political office," Father McEwan says. "But when it comes to running for the Senate, that's going too far. He simply hasn't the qualifications for the office. "

"Many people apparently are saying: "I voted for President Kennedy and I support his policies, but I won't take that kid (Ted)."


But the Kennedy machine prevailed, and Ted Kennedy was victorious in November. Both Jack and Bobby often said that Teddy was the smartest politician in the family and they were right. Ted Kennedy may not have had the qualifications for the U.S. Senate, according to many, he may have gotten there because of his last name, but he sure played his cards right in building a solid reputation for himself, beginning with his decision not to capitalize on his connections to the White House.

An article from February 19, 1963, reiterated Kennedy's low profile in Washington:


Sen. Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy's struggle for national anonymity is puzzling colleagues who would be delighted to embrace some of the opportunities he rejects.

The Massachusetts senator, who is the President's youngest brother, is so cautious in his approach to the publicity spotlight he hasn't even joined middle brother Bobby for a hike.

For Sen. Kennedy, Washington is a place to be seen and not heard -- and not too much of the former, either.

He has gone a long way toward making good on his promise in his only speech here to the Women's National Press Club, that he intends to "stay out of the limelight, out of the headlines and out of the swimming pools."

In five weeks, Kennedy has introduced only two general bills. One would make Columbus Day a legal holiday and the other would provide mass transportation aid to metropolitan areas.

When Kennedy did speak up, he often disagreed with the White House and he was bolder than either of his brothers in promoting civil rights. In an article he wrote about the space program on July 15, 1963, Sen. Kennedy lobbied for a more diverse team of astronauts.

We should also try to train and orbit an astronaut who is a Negro. Most of the people of the world are non-white. This trip would serve to establish a personal identification between them and our space program.

Ironically, it was President Kennedy's assassination less than a year into Ted's first term that really allowed the younger Kennedy to find his place on the national stage.

The President's death has altered Sen. Kennedy's position in the sense that he now has greater freedom of action and of expression. When his brother was in the White House, the senator knew that every word he uttered might have been taken as a reflection of the President's views. Every move he had might have been interpreted as being in line with the President's wishes.

"He used to walk on tiptoes up here," a Boston reporter observed this week. "Now he moves right in and gets involved. He's become a stand-up guy. He's all muscle now. He can speak out. The difference between Ted Kennedy now and a year ago is the difference between night and day."

He seems to have lived down much of the public resentment over his plunging into a Senate race at the age of 30. By general consent he has conducted himself well in the Senate. He has not set the place on fire--freshmen senators rarely do--but he has won the respect of many older senators, which is important to him at this stage of the game.

By a curious turn of fate, Robert Kennedy does not now have the firm political base that Ted Kennedy has. If the attorney general's political future is uncertain, Sen. Kennedy is on a course that seems destined to carry him over the years to growing power in the Senate and growing influence in the Democratic Party.

Kennedy2 Browsing through articles about Ted Kennedy in the later part of the 1960s, I am impressed by his chutzpah. His trip to Vietnam, his fight for civil rights and for the rights of veterans, his attempts to protect immigrants, his efforts regarding gun control, there is so much Kennedy has done for which the American public should be grateful. Senator Kennedy voted against giving President Bush the authority to use force against Iraq in 2003 and he was the first Senator to propose legislation opposing the troop surge two years ago. Kennedy has certainly had his fair share of questionable judgment (No Child Left Behind, anyone?) and who knows what led him as a young man to wait a day before reporting that awful accident on Chappaquiddick.

In 1964, Kennedy was in a plane crash in which the pilot and one of Kennedy's aides were killed. The "Kennedy Curse" yet again? He was pulled out of the wreckage with a broken back and punctured lung by fellow senator Birch Bayh who was also on the plane. There were fears that Kennedy might die from his injuries or be incapacitated for life but it didn't keep him down for too long. Less than a year later he was at the center of another hotly contested national debate.

Sen. Edward (Ted) Kennedy has surprised a lot of people by becoming the strong man in the Senate liberal bloc's battle for a tough Negro voting rights bill.

"I never thought Teddy would have the guts to buck Lyndon," a senior senator said. "We felt he was too soft to try anything like this."

But the Massachusetts senator, who just turned 33, now has found a major cause -- outright abolition of poll taxes in state and local elections. And he is sticking to his guns despite pressure from both the Justice Department and the bi-partisan Senate leadership to accept their ideas on the issue.

His influence and passion remained a constant for so long. Just last month, Kennedy wrote an article for Newsweek about an issue that he felt was the most important one of his career -- universal health care:

This is the cause of my life. It is a key reason that I defied my illness last summer to speak at the Democratic convention in Denver--to support Barack Obama, but also to make sure, as I said, "that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American...will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not just a privilege." For four decades I have carried this cause--from the floor of the United States Senate to every part of this country. It has never been merely a question of policy; it goes to the heart of my belief in a just society. Now the issue has more meaning for me--and more urgency--than ever before. But it's always been deeply personal, because the importance of health care has been a recurrent lesson throughout most of my 77 years.

Rest in peace, Ted.

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