It is an old axiom: "All men are by nature equal/But differ greatly in the sequel." This presidency-obsessed nation should note that most of Ted Kennedy's achievements were sequels to his presidential possibilities. He may have known, in the realism of his fine political mind, that his behavior at Chappaquiddick, 40 years ago last month, would be an insuperable obstacle to his presidential ambitions, about which he seems to have been deeply ambivalent. When he unsuccessfully challenged an incumbent president of his own party for the 1980 nomination, he was at last liberated from the burdens of his sense of duty and of other peoples' expectations and ambitions.
Kennedy served in the Senate for almost 47 years, more than a fifth of the life of the Constitution. He arrived in 1962, before passage of the important civil rights laws, and before the more humane sensibilities that those laws helped to shape. For most of his career he served with the only two senators whose tenures were longer than his -- South Carolina's Strom Thurmond and West Virginia's Robert Byrd, still serving at 91. The latter was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The former was an unyielding segregationist until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- which a larger percentage of Republican than of Democratic senators voted for -- began changing Southern electoral arithmetic. Ted Kennedy participated in unmaking the society that made them.
The last of Joe and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Ted died 14 days after his sister Eunice. It is arguable, and he might have cheerfully conceded, that Eunice was the most consequential Kennedy, at least as measured by the selfless enlargement of happiness. She lived a luminous life, perhaps because of the dark fate of the third oldest of Ted's siblings.
Rosemary was mentally retarded. She was lobotomized and institutionalized. This grotesque response by Rosemary's father to her handicap became a blessing for subsequent mentally disabled Americans, whose afflictions summoned Eunice to her vocation of amelioration.
Let us pay the Kennedys tributes unblurred by tears. Although a great American family, they are not even Massachusetts' greatest family: The Adamses provided two presidents, John and John Quincy, and Charles Francis, who was ambassador to Britain during the Civil War, and the unclassifiable Henry. Never mind. It diminishes Ted to assess him as a fragment of a family. He lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance.