WASHINGTON -- At the Democrats' 1960 convention in Los Angeles that nominated John Kennedy, his 28-year-old brother Ted was standing with the Wyoming delegation when it sealed the victory. He was then a sibling for minor missions. He would become the most consequential brother.
His two political brothers were young men in a hurry: John became the youngest elected president at 43; Robert died at 42, seeking the presidency as soon as possible after the murder of his brother. Ted came to embody the patience of politics. Charisma is less potent than the smitten imagine; endurance is not sufficient, but is necessary.
There is the arithmetic of the Constitution and then there is the life of the institution. The Constitution makes a senator 1 percent of one-half of one of the three branches of the federal government. But the intangible and unquantifiable chemistry of personality in a little laboratory like the Senate made Ted Kennedy forceful.
In the Senate, as elsewhere, 80 percent of the important work is done by a talented 20 percent. And 95 percent of the work is done off the floor, away from committees, out of sight, where strong convictions leavened by good humor are the currency of accomplishment. There Ted Kennedy, who had the politics of the Boston Irish in his chromosomes, flourished. What Winston Churchill said about Franklin Roosevelt -- that meeting him was like opening a bottle of champagne, and knowing him was like drinking it -- was true of Ted Kennedy, too.
He was an unapologetic liberal in an era during which liberalism lost ground. It began to recede in 1966, when he had 43 Senate years ahead of him. His most famous speech, to the 1980 convention, is remembered for its "the dream shall never die" peroration, but much of it was robust condescension regarding Ronald Reagan, whose subsequent landslide victory was proof of a political tide that would not be turned by ridicule. Kennedy's second-most memorable speech, a remarkably meretricious denunciation of Robert Bork, demonstrated the merely contingent connection between truth and rhetorical potency.
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