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Ted Kennedy: Growing up on the job

All the good things that could be said of Ted Kennedy have already been said. Let me say a few of the other things.

When he first came to our attention some 50 years ago, he was the spoiled brat younger brother of John F. Kennedy, himself spoiled but no brat, who was about to become president of the United States.

Teddy was the younger, more handsome, more reckless version of the young, handsome, reckless JFK. He was the rich kid who cut in front of you in the lunchroom line of life and when you'd complain, his old man would show up to bail him out.

He was kicked out of Harvard during his freshman year (and I can only imagine the strings they pulled to get him there in the first place) when it was discovered that he'd gotten another student to take an exam for him.

So he enlisted in the Army -- this during the Korean War -- a reasonable and traditional way of doing penance for a transgression. Except that his rich, swell-connected father, arranged for little Teddy to be assigned to duty with NATO -- in Paris.

After his service Harvard took him back (again, what a surprise) and he graduated, then got a law degree from the University of Virginia.

When his brother was elected president and had to vacate his Senate seat, Teddy was only 28, too young to run for it. So the Kennedys got a family friend appointed to the seat and keep it warm until Ted was old enough to claim it, which he did two years later.

I remember his opponent in that Democratic primary election confronting Kennedy in a debate with the line: "If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke." It was a great line, absolutely on the mark, but Kennedy won by a 2-to-1 margin and coasted to victory in the general election. The Kennedy magic was invincible, at least in Massachusetts.

He grew more serious after the assassination of JFK but still maintained the family tradition of being a serial womanizer, a habit very hard on the wives of the family. That habit culminated in "Chappaquiddick," a late-night escapade with a young woman that ended with Kennedy driving off a bridge on a dark road. She drowned; he didn't.

Bad enough, but Kennedy, rather than reporting it to authorities immediately, waited 10 hours while family consigliore gathered to prepare a plausible excuse. The ever-available Kennedy strings were pulled yet again and no criminal charges were ever filed. It was outrageous.

It was at that moment I washed my hands of the Kennedys. Their magic had no more tricks for me. I thought Teddy should have resigned the Senate there and then, but I knew he wouldn't. How could such a man redeem himself?

How astonishing then, that this third-rate playboy-legislator grew to become one of the towering figures in the history of the U.S. Senate and, beyond that, one of its greatest liberals.

The multiple tragedies that he suffered, and caused others to suffer, did something to him. They made him into a serious person; in Yiddish they call it a "mensch."

His journey from young ne'er-do-well wastrel to the Lion of the Senate can be compared to that of Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays. The young prince spends much of the plays carousing with a gang of drunken tavern bums, but with the death of his father he is transformed into Henry V, an iconic English king.

James Sterling Young of the University of Virginia put it best: "Most people grow up and go into politics. The Kennedys go into politics and then they grow up."

I suppose the lesson of his life, one of them, is that even the least worthy among us can redeem our lives, that it's never too late to stop what we're doing and do something better.

It's a lesson worth learning.