Ted Kennedy's Legacy

Tom Shipka

A team of reporters and an editor from The Boston Globe have published a book entitled Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy which gives us a thorough, objective study of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's youngest child. (1)

The reader will find in the Last Lion much that is familiar. Ted was born into a family of wealth and privilege in 1932 when his mother was forty-one because, as a devout Catholic, she refused to use birth control. (p. 13) Joe was often away making money, courting women, including actress Gloria Swanson, or serving as FDR's ambassador to Great Britain. (p. 17) Rose agreed to ignore Joe's adultery in exchange for what some euphemistically called "retail therapy," that is, shopping to her heart's content in the United States and Europe. (p. 29) Also, Joe set up a $1 million trust fund for each of his children in the hope that lifetime financial security would free them to devote themselves to public service. (p. 17)

Further, we learn that as Ted grew up, unlike his siblings, he struggled in school. His parents transferred him so often that by age eleven he had attended ten schools. (p. 26) Despite his mediocre academic record, Ted followed his brothers Jack and Bobby to Harvard where he was suspended during his first year for cheating on a Spanish test. (p. 38) After a stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to Harvard, completed his degree, and, following the family tradition, enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia where he and his partner eventually won the moot court competition. (p. 53) We also learn that after the death of Jack and Bobby, Ted became a surrogate father to their children with mixed results. After his first marriage failed, Ted married Vicki Reggie, a divorcee with two children, with whom he built a stable marriage which thrives today. (p. 290) We also learn much about Chappaquiddick but we still get no credible explanation of why the Senator waited nine hours to report the fatal accident to the local police. (pp. 145-168)

The reader of the Last Lion will also find some new and surprising information about Senator Kennedy's legislative record. During his forty-seven years in the Senate, he has authored some 2,500 bills, three-hundred of which are law. (p. 396, p. 403) He has played a pivotal role in the passage of virtually every law in the past half century in civil rights, health care, immigration, and education. His achievements include the Americans with Disabilities Act; Head Start; the Women, Infants, and Children program; Health Maintenance Organizations; the No Child Left Behind Law; increases in financial aid for college students and for cancer research; the Immigration Act of 1965; the Ryan White Act for AIDS research; and hundreds of others. Understandably, Senator John McCain has described Ted as "the most effective member of the Senate." (p. 387) Other senators from both sides of the aisle have echoed this tribute, including Orrin Hatch of Utah. (pp. 322-337, p. 387) (2)

Although many will remember Ted Kennedy for his family's tragedies and his personal excesses, his enduring legacy to the nation is a remarkable legislative record built on his personal charm and political savvy, his intense study of proposed legislation, his readiness to reach across the aisle, and his belief that a half a loaf is better than none.


  1. Simon & Schuster, 2009. Senator John McCain's characterization of Kennedy as "the last lion in the Senate" accounts for the title of the book. The reporters are Bella English, Neil Swidey, Jenna Russell, Sam Allis, Joseph P. Kahn, Susan Milligan, and Don Aucoin and the editor is Peter S. Canellos.
  2. Hatch tells a story about a letter he received from a senior citizen in southern Utah which said: "Senator Hatch, when we heard you might run for office, we supported you. When you actually ran for office, we voted for you. And when we heard that you were friends with Senator Kennedy, we prayed for you." (p. 332.)

© 2009 Tom Shipka