The Lesson of the Kennedys
What Jack knew that Ted didn't.


That Senator Kennedy’s death was imminent could have been guessed from the statement issued earlier in the week that President Obama had no plans to visit him during his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Had the senator been in a condition to receive him, the president would almost certainly have gone to Hyannis, from personal affection, certainly, as well as from gratitude, but also in the knowledge (surely forgivable in a practicing politician) that a torch-passing ceremony would be useful just now in the struggle to get a health-care bill.

The image of the old senator on his deathbed, the lion in winter laying hands on his protégé in the cause of liberal reform, would doubtless have been a powerful one. Yet the idea that Senator Kennedy was among the greatest of the Senate’s “lions” must be regarded with skepticism. The testimony concerning his efficacy comes mainly from other senators, and the Senate, Henry Adams observed, “is much given to admiring in its members a superiority less obvious or quite invisible to outsiders.”

The Senate is a seniority system; success is largely the result of staying alive, and staying in office. If Kennedy shone brilliantly in the chamber, it was only in comparison to the less candescent glow of such superannuated coevals as Byrd and Inouye, who did not have the good fortune, as the late senator from Massachusetts did, to enter the body at age 30, and so were past their prime when they reached the highest pinnacle.

Kennedy’s lionhood may well be doubted, but his passing unquestionably marks the end of an era. He was the last surviving son of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, and it is this distinction that has made his death more noteworthy than it would otherwise have been. His place in the dynasty has little to do with it; the Kennedy ascendancy was less a dynastic succession than the lengthened shadow of an idea. It was never a political idea; it was rather an image or, as Kennedy loyalists prefer to call it, a “dream,” a picture bound up with the youthful elevation and early death of John F. Kennedy. What remains finally memorable about President Kennedy, William F. Buckley Jr. said, is the image of martyred beauty. The late president was the St. Sebastian of American politicians, and his heirs and assigns have been drawing on his political capital for nearly half a century now.

After Kennedy was assassinated, his friend Bill Bradlee published, in a book called That Special Grace, a column he wrote for Newsweek in the aftermath of Dallas. Bradlee was writing on a deadline, and the copy he produced was not very good: “Kennedy was a wonderfully funny man, always gay and cheerful, never mean — but historians are prone to stifle laughter in formality . . . ”

You get the idea. But Bradlee was surely right when he argued that “grace” was the essence of John Kennedy’s appeal. “Of all the men I ever knew in my life,” Lord Chesterfield said, “the late Duke of Marlborough possessed the graces in the highest degree. . . . He had no share of what is commonly called parts. . . . He had most undoubtedly an excellent good plain understanding with sound judgment. But these alone would probably have raised him but something higher than they found him.” It was “the Graces that protected and promoted him.”

What Chesterfield called the “graces” we now call “charisma.” It is a sort of charm borne up by luck. Thus the question Napoleon, brushing aside more prosaic credentials, is said to have asked about a prospective commander: “Has he luck?” The Kennedys had their own word for this mysterious combination of grace and fortune. After Bobby’s death in 1968, his widow, Ethel, watching her oldest boy, Joe, greet mourners on the funeral train, was momentarily happy. “He’s got it!” she is said to have exclaimed.

But in fact only two members of the family had “it” in an exceptional degree — the late president and the sister to whom he was most attached, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, who married William “Billy” Cavendish — the Marquess of Hartington, the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire and scion of the great Whig family. (She died in a plane crash in 1948.)