“Rose didn’t have triplets,” Texas political operative Robert Strauss famously said in 1980, nastily suggesting that Ted Kennedy fell short of the standards set by his two older brothers.
It’s probably true he lacked the intellectual heft of John and Robert, and for many years he seemed to display the spoiled temperament of a very wealthy and very coddled young man, a man for whom all obstacles, even obstacles of his own making, were cleared, and for whom all problems were magically solved. He was thrown out of Harvard for cheating on an exam, but somehow subsequently readmitted. With no experience of elective office and no other obvious qualifications, he was essentially handed his eldest brother’s senate seat the moment he reached the constitutionally mandated minimum age of 30 (the seat had been kept warm by a family political retainer named Benjamin Smith on the understanding that he wouldn’t seek re-election once Ted was able to run). His major speeches were written by others. He developed a reputation as a womaniser—a reputation he of course shared with his two brothers—but also, after his brothers’ assassinations, as a problem drinker. And then there was Chappaquiddick; not only did he behave with appalling irresponsibility in the immediate aftermath of the accident, but he then convened his brothers’ familiar brain trust—including Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara—to craft an eloquent mea culpa for him to deliver on national television. Even his putative expressions of deep personal remorse were the product of other hands.
President Kennedy once called Ted “the best natural politician in the family,” but there was initially plenty of reason to doubt this assessment. He was frequently stumbling and inarticulate on the stump and in debate. He showed himself incapable of explaining his presidential candidacy in 1980 when asked about it by a sympathetic journalist (and close friend). The campaign itself was oddly ill-timed and badly conceived; he probably could have had the nomination for the asking in any of the three previous election cycles, but instead waited to challenge a sitting president of his own party, an undertaking almost certainly doomed to failure (and almost guaranteed to make enemies of many natural allies). His behaviour after losing the nomination was uncharacteristically graceless and unprofessional.
Still, if one looks…