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End Of The Kennedy Reign?

ted kennedy and caroline kennedy schlossberg democratic national convention
AP
While I was watching Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's eloquent speech to his fellow Democrats Tuesday night, it occurred to me that as the long-familiar patriarch of America's royal family, he also has a lot at stake in this year's presidential election.

For if Al Gore is defeated by the governor of Texas in November, then the Bushes will supplant the Kennedys as our foremost political dynasty.

There was a time when such a shift in hierarchy would have been unthinkable. But that was years ago, and the once-vibrant quest to restore Camelot has long since become a wistful, fading dream that has little to do with the political realities of the present day.

Let's not forget that 20 years have passed since Ted Kennedy made his one and only run for president. And even then, there were many who thought he had waited too long to make his move.

For by 1980 he had been bearing the banner of family leadership for 12 years. It had been thrust upon him suddenly in the spring of 1968 when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, less than five years after their older brother, President John F. Kennedy, was shot to death in Dallas.

Bob Kennedy was killed while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, and it was understood that the last surviving brother would, in his words, "take up the fallen standard."

Given the circumstances, no one expected Ted Kennedy to go charging into the 1968 race for the White House. But after Richard Nixon led the Republicans to victory that year, the Massachusetts senator quickly emerged as the front-running Democrat to challenge Nixon in 1972.

But then in the summer of '69, there occurred the infamous drowning at Chappaquiddick, a tragedy that raised disturbing questions about Kennedy's judgment and character.

Rather than confront all the questions about the drowning that would have been hurled at him in a presidential campaign, Kennedy chose to take a pass in '72 and again declined to run in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter recaptured the White House for the Democrats.

So by the time Kennedy finally did "take up the fallen standard" in 1980, a lot of the bloom was off the rose.

Even among Americans who still yearned for a Kennedy Restoration – a return to JFK's Camelot – there were many who now regarded Teddy as tarnished goods. Chappaquiddick had left an enduring scar.

Further complicating his task was the fact that he was waging an insurgency campaign against an incumbent president from his own party who was determined to run for a second term.

Still, Kennedy went ahead with the challenge because the country was in an economic crisis and he believed Carter's weak leadership was largely responsible for the soaring inflation and interest rates that were causing so much misery in so many American homes.

Carter had lost much of his popularity, but as president he still had control of the party's resources and organizational strength in most of the key states. That eabled him to ward off Kennedy's challenge, although the senator did manage to win enough major states – such as New York and Pennsylvania – to carry the fight to that summer's convention in Madison Square Garden.

There he continued to push his candidacy, pressuring the Carter camp to yield to his demands on economic platform issues. And even though the president had enough votes to win nomination on the first ballot, Kennedy stole the show with an emotional and heartfelt address to the delegates.

In some respects, it was a valedictory, for among other things, Kennedy was saying farewell to party and country as a presidential candidate. And although elegiac in tone, the speech also looked to the future with hope and compassion.

It ended with these words: For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."

Kennedy did not retire from public life, of course. He repeatedly won re-election to the Senate, where his power and stature continued to grow through the years.

But if there were to be another Kennedy in the White House, he (or she) would have to come from the family's next generation, and in this regard the public record has been largely disappointing.

Yes, the senator's son, Patrick, serves as a congressman from Rhode Island; and a nephew, Joseph, was a House member from Massachusetts until he chose to leave Congress in 1998. Another nephew, Robert Jr., is an active crusader on environmental issues.

Then there are the prominent nieces: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who serves as lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, a distinguished author of books on international law.

Still other members of the family have gone on to successful careers in other fields.

Some voices from this generation of Kennedys were stilled by tragedy - JFK Jr.'s in a 1999 plane crash and his cousin Michael’s in a 1997 skiing accident. And others were caught up in misfortunes that were the result less of tragedy than reckless behavior.

Yet in terms of political success, even the best of the young Kennedys pale in comparison to the impressive achievements of George W. Bush and his younger brother, Jeb.

Their elections as governors of two of our largest states – Texas and Florida – extended the legacy they inherited from their father, former President George Bush, which he, in turn, had inherited from his father, Prescott Bush a senator from Connecticut five decades ago, who pioneered the family’s political dynasty.

And if Gov. Bush is elected president, he will raise the legacy to historic proportions by becoming the first American since John Quincy Adams to follow his father into the White House.

Should it come to that, who would have thought that Camelot, that romantic dream from Kennedy's reign, would be usurped by another fantasy from the same era in Merrie Old England?

For no oe ever expected the legend to be taken over by the heir of the Connecticut Yankee who somehow found his way into King Arthur's Court.