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He was never president, but he was keeper of his brothers' legacy.
He was never president, but he was keeper of his brothers' legacy.

Andrew Cohen

And the last Kennedy shall be first Add to ...

On the weekend of his inauguration, John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave Edward Moore Kennedy an engraved silver cigarette case. In the days of gifts rather than gift cards, when words were etched in silver rather than swept into cyberspace, words had a way of enduring.

Certainly these did. The biblical inscription from eldest brother to youngest brother read: "And the last shall be first."

In 1961, that prophecy seemed implausible. There was no reason on God's green Earth to think that the youngest of the Kennedys would ever be first. After all, Jack was 43 years old and expected to serve two terms in the White House.

Robert Francis Kennedy was then 35 years old. His turn would come in 1968. "After I'm through, how about you?" a playful Jack had asked.

And Teddy Kennedy? He was 28 years old in 1961. He had been expelled from Harvard for cheating. He had campaigned for his brother, loyally going off a ski jump. Anything for Jack.

Ted was a jester, a jock, a playboy, a dilettante, a hellion. At the edge of the New Frontier, the House of Kennedy might fancy itself a dynasty. But only the most delusional acolytes could imagine Ted - the pasty, pudgy, gregarious Ted - as its high priest.

Yet Joe Kennedy, the thrusting buccaneer who had pushed his sons into politics, had plans for the last of his children. Why, Ted would go to the Senate! A family retainer was appointed to the seat until Teddy reached 30, the minimum age at which he could serve. His opponent sniffed that if he his name were Edward Moore rather than Edward Kennedy, with his family and money, his candidacy would have been ridiculous. He was right, but Ted won.

And so Ted Kennedy, barely of age, entered the most august legislature in the world. In the shadow of his brothers, he would surely fade away.

Yet he would serve for almost 47 years, among the longest of any senator in history. He would propose, amend and influence almost every major piece of progressive legislation of the last generation. Yes, he would be more than Moore.

He was the greatest legislator of his time, and, some historians argue, the greatest of all time. Civil rights, women's rights, human rights, consumer rights. Education, the environment, and, the cause of his life, health care. The critic of Vietnam, Iraq and Robert Bork.

His legacy - the body of law that defined late 20th century America - was born of personal tragedy. After Bobby was killed in 1968, it was thought that Teddy would run for president.

He refused to become Hubert Humphrey's running mate that year, which might have set him up for the presidency in 1972 or 1976. But his presidential aspirations ended with Chappaquiddick in 1969. His behaviour after the accident was irresponsible, even criminal. Yet he would not know it was over for him until 1980, when he ran against incumbent Jimmy Carter.

When Senator Kennedy appeared at the Democratic National Convention in New York that summer, we sensed that there would not be another President Kennedy. That evening, though, the lion roared unlike any time before or since. Those of us who were there could never forget it, the speech of his life, for him the last of the great ovations.

It wasn't, not really. A more sober Kennedy would emerge. Not right away, though. After years of philandering and drinking, a sad season that turned him into the caricature of the sodden, bloated, florid-faced Irishman, he began to find himself in the Senate.

Learning to compromise, collaborating with Republicans, recruiting the best minds, he mobilized his idealism, married it to his celebrity and sent it into battle. Time and time again, he won.

Unlike his three brothers, Ted Kennedy would achieve three score and ten and more. He would die as the greying patriarch of a benighted family, he would write his memoirs (due in October), he would die in bed.

With a steely ambition few could foresee, he overcame tragedy, loss and longing. He was never president, but he was something more: the keeper of his brothers' legacy.

They can say today that Edward Kennedy finished what Jack and Bobby began. And now that his long, storied, feverish life is over, they can also say that the last was first.

Andrew Cohen, a professor, author and former Washington correspondent with The Globe and Mail, is working on a book on the Kennedys.

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