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

The Kennedys: A Human Legacy

Ted Kennedy exemplified all of privilege's promise and all of its detriments. In him, the inspiring mix of soaring rhetoric and devotion to public service encouraged by the unyielding faith of his mother gave way to frustrating and self defeating episodes inherited from his shrewd but profligate father. That portrait, so publicly etched, is the real lesson of the Kennedy legacy.

For along with their genuine attractiveness was a repellence of equal proportion, a dichotomy borne from power's temptation to encourage inbreeding and fealty to the mythos writ upon the nation's psyche. But within this particular myth is actual heroism and betrayal, glory and despair, death and resurrection.

It is compelling in the dramatic sense, the one preferred by the media and those who favor a simple telling of a complex story. But the reality of the Kennedys' service to the citizens of this country cannot be denied, whether by their incessantly obstructionist detractors or by their own liability.

They were equal parts ambition and altruism, a reflection of America itself. But in a culture that enjoys cleaning its claws on scandal, a veritable cottage industry arose from their hijinks, which at times threatened to obscure any of their good works and turn their once adoring public towards snide contempt.

They had it all and lost much. Being human, the Kennedys had no choice but to pay the price of admission regardless of their status and were thus regularly felled and foiled. And in recent years, almost everyone's become an Oswald, a Sirhan, a Kopechne, murdering their heroes and in turn being themselves left for dead. It's all too easy to sit back and judge history with the effortlessness with which we navigate the remote or surf the gossamer web, taking history for granted and rendering life itself suspect if unaccompanied by easy profit or dumbed-down accessibility.

The Kennedys ultimately defied that tendency. Their charitable and legislative efforts have improved the lives of millions of people, as well as being instrumental in adding a new dynamism to an old game, one which energized the masses and introduced intoxicating feelings of pride and vigor into the dull desert of politics.

What Ted Kennedy managed to do was hang on. Having navigated through many a morass, he was, in the end, able to do more good than the average politician and less bad than the average wealthy, powerful paterfamilias. Eventually he succeeded where his lionized brothers failed: he survived the Kennedy curse long enough to see the birth of a new era, one that promises the kind of hope and change his brothers only dreamed of.

And our country is better for it.