We like our heroes strong, handsome, fearless, and preferably dead. Swaddled in the golden vestments of nostalgia and sentiment, they can remain enshrined in their perfect immortality. No wonder the Americans love the Kennedys.
The Kennedy boys knew how to look good, live large and die young, in full cinematic glory. In this, they obliged not only their nation but also their Hollywood-obsessed father who, as Time magazine writer David Von Drehle observes, “with his bottomless checkbook and flair for p.r., cast his clan in flawless Carrara marble, more beautiful than human flesh.”
Joe Jr, the first, best loved son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, died a war hero. Jack upped the ante by becoming president, and getting himself killed in office and full public view (to be later buried by his beautiful wife in a blood-splattered Chanel suit, no less). His political heir Robert became part of the Camelot legend when he, too, was assassinated five years later, leaving poor Teddy to bear the real Kennedy curse: the burden of living a long life, riddled with human failings and errors, redeemed by modest, workman-like achievement.
Icon: He was the ‘last great liberal’. Stephan Savoia / AP
In his memoir True Compass, posthumously released this month, Kennedy writes, “As I think back to my three brothers, and about what they had accomplished before I was even out of my childhood, it sometimes has occurred to me that my entire life has been a constant state of catching up.” By the end of his life, Teddy had not only caught up with his brothers, but surpassed them with a legislative record that championed civil rights, universal healthcare, workplace safety, public accountability, AIDS funding and poverty programmes. True Compass is testimony to the kind of heroism that relies not on elan or daring but the less glamorous virtues of endurance, adaptability and grit-your-teeth determination. In the book, Kennedy consoles his 10-year-old grandson as he struggles to master sailing, saying “we might not be the best,” but “we can work harder than anyone”.
Like his brothers, Kennedy too was given a hero’s farewell as a nation came together to mourn the death of the “last great liberal”. The eulogies marked a new-found maturity among Americans who have far too often valued image over substance, usually at their own expense.
The public resurrection from Kennedy screw-up to American hero has spawned the inevitable rash of biographies with suitably fawning titles, such as Ted Kennedy: An American Icon and Ted Kennedy: The Dream that Never Died. The same company, Simon and Schuster, which published Joe McGinniss’ The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Ted Kennedy in 1993, also released Peter Canellos’ Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy earlier this year.
Joyce Carol Oates, who penned a fictional account of the infamous Chappaquiddick accident, is one of the few liberals to question Kennedy’s canonization. “Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?” she asks in a Guardian column.
In his memoir, Kennedy acknowledges the enormity of his mistakes that took the life of his brother’s young aide, though he denies being drunk and claims to have repeatedly tried to free her from the submerged car. But the dying senator’s response to Oates’ question lies elsewhere, when he writes of the long journey to redemption, “I have fallen short in my life, but my faith has always brought me home.” It may not be good enough for Mary Jo Kopechne’s parents, but it will have to suffice for the rest of us.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org