In a June 4, 1983 file photo John F. Kennedy Jr., second from left, listens to his uncle Ted Kennedy, right, with his mother Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, left, and sister Caroline Kennedy, second right, at his graduation from Brown University, Providence, R.I.
With Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death comes not only the end of a political dynasty, but also of one of the most enduring — and cherished — American myths. Camelot is no more.
The myth was so powerful that it transcended generations. Unlike many allusions to the 1960s, it needs no explanation to those who don’t remember that time.
John F. Kennedy, the eldest brother, was King Arthur, and wife Jackie his Guinevere. Bobby, the second brother, was Lancelot, defender of the powerless and, it is said, secretly in love with the queen.
And then there was the youngest of them all: Teddy, in whom the best and the worst of everything Kennedy seemed to come together.
It was he who would ultimately become this Camelot’s Galahad. Though far from perfect and nowhere near a man of great virtue, Edward M. Kennedy was the knight who ultimately set for himself a quest. Its object was no less momentous than the Holy Grail itself: universal health care.
Embracing the legend
If the analogy is imperfect, it is only because of the myth to which it is attached. The Camelot of legend never existed, except in the minds of people who needed there to be such a place. It and the people in it were always what we wanted — and needed — them to be.
This is why the myth is so powerful. Camelot was nothing more or less than a reflection of the Garden of Eden, that perfect place inhabited by perfect people in some bygone age when such places and such people existed.
Ted Kennedy undoubtedly understood that. He certainly embraced it, idolizing his older brothers, fully believing that there was a happily-ever-after that men could forge, if only they were bold enough to do so.
And in the end, Ted Kennedy also came closer to the myth than his brothers ever could. For that, he could thank the one gift his brothers never had: the opportunity to live his life to its natural end.
An ailing Arthur
John F. Kennedy may have been president when “Camelot” was a hit on Broadway, but he was no King Arthur. Arthur was virtuous and pure, a powerful warrior glowing with health. JFK only looked the part.
His greatest virtue was his movie-star good looks, which projected the image of other virtues that we willingly ascribed to him. In real life, he was, as Mae West said of herself, “as pure as the driven slush.”
Physically, he looked the part of the warrior who had survived the destruction of PT 109 in the Pacific theater during World War II and had swum to safety dragging one of his injured crewmen with him. But in reality, according to his biographer, Robert Dallek, he was a physical wreck. The newsreels showed him playing touch football on the White House lawn. They did not show the massive doses of medications that allowed him to do so.
To get through the days, Kennedy took, “steroids for his Addison's disease, pain-killers for his back, antispasmodics for his colitis, antibiotics for urinary-tract infections, antihistamines for allergies and, on at least one occasion, an antipsychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed had been brought on by the antihistamines,” Dallek wrote. At times, the hero of America’s Camelot reportedly could not even put on his own shoes and socks.
As president, JFK was inspirational. He also nearly plunged the world into nuclear war. But none of it mattered. In 20th-century America, as in every other culture from the birth of civilization, image trumps reality.
It is no different today. Humans have never been very good at letting the facts get in the way of a good story. And the story of the Kennedys is more than good; it is great, the stuff that myths are made of.
This is a family that Aeschylus and Sophocles and Homer would have written about, a family that Norse poets would have immortalized in sagas, a family that medieval troubadours would have sung about, a family that Shakespeare would have devoted a trilogy to, a family that America transformed into a vision of its ideal self.
Expectations and excess
Teddy was the kid brother of that family, the youngest kid who was faced with the Everest of expectations established by his three older brothers.
Joseph Jr. had died heroically as a pilot defending London against the Nazi blitz. Jack, the second-oldest, became the embodiment of the Camelot myth that would follow the family to the present. Bobby, the third brother, was the brilliant orator and idealist who was on his way to the White House in 1968 when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
It was a lot to live up to. It was both a curse and a blessing that Teddy alone among the brothers lived out his natural life. It was a curse because the reality of his personal life became public at Chappaquiddick, when Mary Jo Kopechne, a young campaign worker, died, and the famous senator neglected for nine hours to tell anyone about it.
There was more. After his unsuccessful challenge to incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ted Kennedy outraged his Catholic base by divorcing his wife, Joan.
Much of the 1980s seemed to be a blur of excess, of public drunkenness and lechery. In a Greek tragedy, that would have been the last act: a great man brought down by his own excesses, due to the original sin of hubris.
Remorse and redemption
But life doesn’t always imitate art. In the 1990s, Ted Kennedy met his second wife, Vicki, and finally became what the Kennedy myth had always held him and his brothers to be.
His redemption began with a very public confession of his own sins. In a remarkable 1991 speech at Harvard, the senior senator from Massachusetts did something that we were not accustomed to seeing our political heroes do: He admitted to being less than what he seemed.
“I recognize my own shortcomings, the faults and the conduct of my private life,” he said in the distinctive Kennedy accent. “I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.”
In an interview with NBC News the following year, he explained that speech, saying, “I owed them some explanation, or at least the recognition that I understood.”
That would be what ultimately set Ted Kennedy apart, and what transformed him into a man who would be eulogized as one of the greatest senators in American history. Unlike so many others, Ted Kennedy proved by his actions that he really did understand.
His legislative resume is a towering testament to his ideals. And in those ideals, he was always consistent. His brother Bobby had swung from the right to the left of the political scale, and Jack had been a centrist and a political pragmatist. But Ted was consistent for four decades in his defense of the least of us, in his belief in the common man and woman.
Repentance and respect
It takes more than age to become known as a statesman. Strom Thurmond served forever in the Senate without ever being accused of such a thing. Ted Kennedy didn’t have that distinction given to him. He earned it.
He would give a lot of credit to his second wife, Vicki, in whom he found a soul mate and an inner peace that had been lacking in his life. He told NBC that those later years were “a different plateau of my life; a different chapter of my life.”
In the end, there would be a final bit of Kennedy tragedy in his death. It could not be said that he died too young; at 77, he had lived as full a life as anyone could hope for. It was rife with imperfection, but that proves nothing except that he was human. Much as the mythmakers would have us believe otherwise, there are none of us who are perfect, none of us who are without sin.
What made him heroic to many in the end was that he accepted his sins, repented, and fulfilled his vow to do better. By his final days, he was as respected a man on both sides of the aisle as is ever likely to be found in Washington, D.C.
Yet still he died too soon. The great dream of his career, the Holy Grail that this knight of Camelot spent a lifetime seeking, had been to see universal health care in the United States. And at just the moment that that goal was finally coming into sight, a moment when his leadership and intellect were most desperately needed, he died.
The finish line of a lifelong race had been in sight. He never reached it.
Sophocles and Shakespeare could have done something with that. So could have Lerner and Loewe.
More on: Edward Kennedy