Edward M. Kennedy (born 1932), youngest brother of President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, entered the U.S. Senate at age 30 and steadily gained influence as he continued to win re-election. Largely because of the glamorous "Kennedy legacy," he was considered a potential Democratic presidential nominee starting in 1968.
Edward M. Kennedy was born February 22, 1932, fourth son and last of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Because of his wealthy family's frequent shuttling among Boston, New York, and Palm Beach (and—while his father was ambassador to London—England), Kennedy attended several different private schools before enrolling in Milton Academy in 1946. Upon graduation from Milton in 1950 he enrolled at Harvard— like his older brothers before him. At the end of his freshman year, however, he was expelled for having another student take a Spanish final examination in his stead. Kennedy then enlisted for a two-year stint in the army. Perhaps the advantage of his father's influence won him assignment to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe) headquarters in Paris.
Preparation for Public Service
After his discharge Kennedy returned to Harvard, graduating in 1956. He then enrolled in the University of Virginia Law School, where his talent for debate, always apparent, was sharpened. He received his law degree in 1959 and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in the same year. In November 1958 Kennedy married Virginia Joan Bennett. Together they had three children: Kara Anne; Edward M., Junior; and Patrick Joseph.
While still a law student Edward Kennedy managed the successful Senate re-election campaign in Massachusetts of his brother John (JFK). Then, in 1960 he served as Western states coordinator for JFK's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. After his brother's victory in the 1960 election, Edward took a position (on a "dollar-a-year" basis) as assistant to the Suffolk County (Massachusetts) district attorney. As preparation for running in 1962 for the remainder of JFK's unexpired Senate term, Edward traveled widely and filled numerous speaking engagements.
Becoming a National Figure
At the minimum age (30), Kennedy easily won election to the Senate in 1962 over Republican George Lodge after winning a bruising primary against the nephew of U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack. Kennedy's slogan was: "I can do more for Massachusetts." As a junior legislator, Kennedy deferred to his Senate seniors, surprising some observers who expected greater aggressiveness. A year after JFK's 1963 assassination, Edward won election to his first full Senate term with 74.4 percent of the vote. He won despite (or perhaps partially because of) suffering a critical back injury in a plane crash in June which incapacitated him throughout the campaign.
Also elected to the Senate in 1964 (in New York) was Edward Kennedy's only surviving brother, Robert. Though he was Robert's senior in the Senate, Edward remained— partially by choice—in the former's shadow during the mid-1960s. But in 1965 he scored his first major legislative victory, leading the fight for passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended the national origins quota system.
Kennedy began to speak out against the Vietnam War by 1967, focusing mainly on the need for draft reform and the U.S. failure to provide for the Vietnamese war victims. After visiting South Vietnam in early 1968 he became more critical, yet managed to stay on good terms with the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy's life was strongly affected by his brother Robert's assassination in June 1968. After a period of withdrawal, he became more strident in denouncing the Vietnam War and in pressing for selected social reforms. Though he resisted efforts to draft him for the 1968 Democratic nomination (which went to Hubert Humphrey), his actions clearly established him as heir to the "Kennedy legacy."
Perennial Presidential Possibility
The year 1969 began well for Kennedy, with his election as Senate majority whip in January. Six months later, however, his career suffered a devastating—some thought fatal—blow when, following a party he drove his car off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, resulting in the drowning of his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy's failure to report the accident for nearly nine hours was harshly condemned by press and public alike. In a televised speech a week later he asked the voters to advise him as to whether he should remain in office. The response was positive, as was the local court's verdict: Kennedy's sentence— for leaving the scene of an accident—was suspended.
Chappaquiddick provided grist for several pot-boiling books and posed a lasting threat to Kennedy's presidential hopes, but it did not hamper him in the Senate. He energetically opposed Nixon's ABM (anti-ballistic missile) deployment proposal, backed various measures to end the Vietnam War, and led the fight for the 18-year-old vote. After winning easy re-election in 1970, however, Kennedy lost his majority whip post to Senator Robert Byrd by a close vote in 1971. Freed from the constraints of his formal leadership post, he resumed more energetically than ever his outspoken opposition to the Nixon administration. Suspected of harboring hopes for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, he again renounced any such ambitions. He did not attend the convention and refused nominee George McGovern's offer of the vice-presidential nomination.
In the 1970s Kennedy became closely identified with the issues of handgun control and compulsory national health insurance (his 1972 book, In Critical Condition, was a sweeping indictment of the U.S. health care industry). He also took strong positions favoring bussing for racial balance, amnesty for Vietnam-era draft evaders, and the right of women to receive federal assistance for abortions. He was well aware that his views were controversial, once remarking that he would "love to campaign against" his record.
Kennedy dispelled the inevitable rumors of his availability for the presidency in 1976, announcing in late 1974 that he would not run—despite his commanding position in the early polls. Running instead for re-election to the Senate in 1976, he won with an impressive 70 percent of the vote. Now one of the Senate's most powerful figures, Kennedy became chairman of the Judiciary Committee and pushed for airline deregulation, no-fault insurance, and consumer-oriented modifications in the anti-trust laws. He loyally backed Democratic President Jimmy Carter's foreign policy initiatives, including normalization of U.S.-China relations and the Panama Canal treaties.
Though Kennedy disavowed interest in the 1980 presidential nomination during the early part of Carter's term, he again emerged as the favorite in public opinion polls. Finally yielding to temptation, he announced in November 1979 that he would challenge Carter for the nomination. His candidacy began miserably, however, when he performed poorly in a televised interview (which revived the "Chappaquiddick issue"); also the Iranian hostage crisis and Russian invasion of Afghanistan increased public support for incumbent Carter, at least temporarily. Kennedy lost important early caucus contests and primaries to Carter, fatally damaging his "winner's" mystique. Well before the convention, Carter's nomination was assured. Kennedy, however, dominated the convention itself with one of his most stirring speeches.
A Leader on National Issues
When the Republicans gained control of the Senate in 1981, Kennedy lost his Judiciary Committee chairmanship and once again focussed his energies primarily on social programs and labor issues. Rising to seventh in Democratic seniority in the Senate after his fourth re-election in 1982 (with 60 percent of the vote), Kennedy emerged as an influential and constant critic of Ronald Reagan's domestic and foreign policies, opposing "supply-side" economic measures, U.S. aid to rightist forces in Central America, and proposals to bar federal courts from requiring bussing in local school districts.
In late 1982 Kennedy removed himself from contention for his party's presidential nomination. By mid-decade, he was still only in his fifties. Despite the break-up of his marriage of nearly 25 years and the lingering stigma of Chappaquiddick, he retained his high standing in public opinion polls. Heir to a glamorous political tradition, committed to an expanded federal role in pursuit of social and economic justice, yet clearly capable of pragmatic trimming when necessary.
Kennedy has proven himself a staunch proponent of national health insurance and tax reform. He co-sponsored the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill making health insurance available to people who change jobs and/or have pre-existing health conditions. Kennedy and Senator Orrin Hatch proposed to raise the cigarette tax to expand the availability of health insurance for children. The bill, introduced April 8, 1997, was defeated by a close margin on May 21, 1997.
Kennedy's son, Patrick Kennedy, is an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
Further Reading on Edward M. Kennedy
James McGregor Burns, Edward Kennedy and the Camelot Legacy (1976), is the most thorough biographical treatment of the youngest Kennedy; David Burner and Thomas R. West, in The Torch Is Passed: The Kennedy Brothers and American Liberalism (1984), give substantial attention to Edward in the context of the political tradition established by his elder brothers; other useful sources include: Theo Lippman, Senator Ted Kennedy (1970); William Honan, Ted Kennedy: Profile of a Survivor (1972); Burton Hersh, The Education of Edward Kennedy: A Family Biography (1972); and Murray Levin and T. A. Repak, Edward Kennedy: The Myth of Leadership (1980); "What Democrats should fight for" by Edward M. Kennedy in Vital Speeches of the Day, vol. 61, no. 8, February 1, 1995; and "Happy Birthday Teddy" by Martin F. Nolan in Washingtonian, vol. 32, no. 5, February 1997, pp. 54-57; Critical assessments focussing on the Chappaquiddick incident include Jack Olsen, The Bridge at Chappaquiddick (1970) and Robert Sherrill, The Last Kennedy (1976); Kennedy himself has written Decisions for a Decade: Policies and Programs for the 1970s (1968) and In Critical Condition: The Crisis in America's Health Care (1972).