Edward “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009), the youngest brother of President John Kennedy (1917-1963), was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 1962 to 2009, making him one of the longest-serving senators in American history. Kennedy entered the Senate after winning a 1962 special election to fill the seat vacated by his brother John when he became president. During his career on Capitol Hill, Ted Kennedy was a spokesman for liberal causes, including civil rights, health care and immigration. A leader of the Democratic Party, he was known for his ability to work with those on both sides of the political aisle. In 1980, Kennedy, whose reputation was tarnished by a 1969 car accident, made a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dubbed the “liberal lion of the Senate,” he died of cancer at age 77 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ted Kennedy’s Childhood and Education
Edward Moore Kennedy was born in Boston on February 22, 1932, the youngest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (1888-1969), a wealthy financier who served as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later as ambassador to Great Britain, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995), the daughter of a Boston politician.
As a child, Kennedy moved between his family’s homes in Massachusetts, New York, Palm Beach and London, and attended 10 schools before graduating from Milton Academy in Massachusetts in 1950. He went on to attend Harvard University, the alma mater of his father and three older brothers. During his freshman year, he was expelled after a classmate took a Spanish exam in his place. Kennedy then enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving from 1951 to 1953, mostly in Europe. Afterward, he re-enrolled in Harvard, where he became a more serious student and played on the football team.
After graduating in 1956, he attended the University of Virginia School of Law. While still a law student, he managed his brother John’s successful 1958 reelection campaign to the U.S. Senate, where he represented Massachusetts. The following year, Kennedy earned his law degree and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar.
Ted Kennedy’s Election to the U.S. Senate
When John Kennedy made his 1960 run for the White House, Ted Kennedy campaigned for him in the Western states. A licensed pilot, he barnstormed around the region, meeting with delegates and trying bronco riding and ski jumping as a way to connect with people.
In November 1960, John Kennedy was elected America’s 35th president. The following month, a Kennedy family friend, Benjamin Smith (1916-1991), was appointed to fill the president-elect’s vacated Senate seat until a special election was held. On November 6, 1962, Ted Kennedy, who earlier that year had turned 30 (the minimum age requirement for a U.S. senator), won the special election in Massachusetts to serve out the remainder of his brother’s Senate term, ending in January 1965. Massachusetts voters reelected Kennedy to the seat eight more times, in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006.
With John Kennedy in the White House, Ted Kennedy in the Senate and their brother Robert (1925-1968) serving as the U.S. attorney general from 1961 to 1964 and as a U.S. senator from New York from 1965 to 1968, the glamorous, wealthy, Irish-Catholic Kennedys were often referred to as an American political dynasty.
Ted Kennedy’s Marriages and Family
In 1958 Ted Kennedy married Joan Bennett (1936-), who he met through his sister Jean (1928-); both women had attended Manhattanville College in New York. The couple had three children—Kara (1960-), Edward Jr. (1961-) and Patrick (1967-)—before divorcing in 1982. In 1992, Kennedy married Victoria Reggie (1954-), a Washington attorney with two children. Kennedy often spent time with his family sailing, which he described as his favorite pastime.
Tragedy Strikes the Kennedys
On November 22, 1963, tragedy struck the Kennedy family and the nation when 46-year-old President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. He was the third Kennedy sibling to perish. The oldest child, Joseph Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944), a Navy pilot, died in World War II, and the second-eldest daughter, Kathleen (1920-1948), was killed in a plane crash in France. In June 1964, Ted Kennedy escaped death when the small plane he was riding in crashed in Massachusetts in bad weather, killing two people and leaving Kennedy with a broken back and other injuries that required a six-month hospital recuperation.
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On June 5, 1968, tragedy struck again when 42-year-old Senator Robert Kennedy, who had just won the Democratic presidential primary in California, was assassinated in Los Angeles.
With Robert’s death, Ted Kennedy became the family patriarch–his father Joseph had suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1961–and a surrogate father to his two slain brothers’ 13 children.
Incident at Chappaquiddick
On July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy was involved in a controversial event that would mar the rest of his career. He accidentally drove his car off a bridge on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne (1940-1969), who drowned. Kennedy did not report the incident to the authorities for nearly 10 hours, claiming the delay was due to the fact that he had suffered a concussion and was exhausted from attempting to rescue Kopechne.
The 37-year-old senator pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence. However, Kennedy was plagued by questions about his behavior. He later referred to his actions as “inexcusable” and said that Kopechne’s death “haunts me every day of my life.”
Ted Kennedy’s Bid for the White House
In November 1979, Ted Kennedy announced he would run against President Jimmy Carter (1924-) for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy won primaries in New York, California and eight other states, but his campaign was disorganized and hurt by lingering questions about Chappaquiddick. At the August 1980 Democratic National Convention, he withdrew his bid for the presidency and went on to deliver a fiery speech in which he said, “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Kennedy never made another bid for the presidency.
The Liberal Lion of the Senate
Some historians have called Ted Kennedy one of the most effective legislators in the history of the U.S. Senate. During nearly 47 years on Capitol Hill, his office wrote some 2,500 bills, over 300 of which became law. Additionally, over 550 bills that he co-sponsored became law. A skilled orator and gifted storyteller, Kennedy was known for his ability to collaborate with Democrats and Republicans alike.
He successfully fought for legislation concerning education, immigration reform, increases to the federal minimum wage, voting rights, AIDS care, various consumer protections and equal rights for minorities, the disabled, women and gay Americans. In 1972 he was the driving force behind the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides food assistance and access to health services for low-income women and their children, and he was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which banned workplace discrimination against and required public accommodations for the disabled.
Kennedy referred to universal health insurance as “the cause of my life,” and for decades worked to achieve national health reform. Kennedy’s widow Victoria was present when President Barack Obama (1961-) signed historic health care legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in March 2010.
In foreign policy matters, Kennedy was an opponent of the Vietnam War and in 2002 voted against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. He worked for human rights in South America in the 1970s, championed U.S. government sanctions against apartheid-ruled South Africa in the 1980s, and helped broker a peace agreement in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.
Ted Kennedy’s Final Years
In May 2008, Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. That August, despite his poor health, he made a rousing speech in his distinct Massachusetts accent at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. In his speech, the senator, who earlier that year had endorsed Barack Obama for president, invoked the legacy of the Kennedy family when he stated, “And this November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans…The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”
On August 25, 2009, the 77-year-old Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. At his funeral, which was attended by three former U.S. presidents, the late senator was eulogized by President Obama. Kennedy was buried at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, near the graves of his brothers John and Robert. Kennedy’s memoir, “True Compass,” was published posthumously in September 2009.