The 'What-Ifs' About Ted Kennedy

In the thousand days of John Kennedy's presidency, the big unanswered question — often asked — was whether he would have withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam had he lived to see a second term. The answer has been debated countless times in the 45-plus years since his assassination. I suspect the answer would have been no. But there is, of course, no answer.

Robert Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination lasted 82 days — until he was assassinated in June of 1968, moments after declaring victory in the California primary. The long-asked question about Bobby is: would he have won his party's nomination had Sirhan Sirhan not fired the fatal bullets. That is another unanswerable question, though I think I know the answer to that one too. I say no, that the way the party rules existed back then, with President Johnson still in control of the national party and the state caucuses in the hands of Johnson-Humphrey loyalists, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was going to win the nomination regardless. Humphrey had not won, nor even entered, a single primary contest. But the delegates were his.

When I think about Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, what comes to mind most — what saddens me most — is their unfulfilled potential. Both were cut down at the pinnacle of their careers. Ted Kennedy lived to be 77 years old. He spent nearly 47 years in his beloved U.S. Senate — compared to eight years for JFK and three and a half for RFK. There were no assassin's bullets. He accomplished more than most senators in the history of Congress.

And yet there are so many "what ifs" about Edward Moore Kennedy too.

Would he have become president had he not driven his car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, in 1969, resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne? What if he had run in 1976, when the nation was still reeling over Watergate and the economy and ready to elect a Democrat?

Or was he just too much of a lightning rod? Despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the nation was not exactly embracing liberals at the time. One thing that propelled Jimmy Carter to the nomination in '76 is that he projected a centrist image, and that those to his left — such as Mo Udall, Birch Bayh, Fred Harris, etc. — split the liberal vote in the early primaries. Remember, Carter won New Hampshire with just 28 percent. He received even less in Iowa, and yet he was the strongest candidate in those caucuses. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, another centrist, stayed out of Iowa and New Hampshire, giving Carter a break, while the former Georgia governor was demolishing George Wallace in the South. And by the time the so-called "fresh" faces, Frank Church and Jerry Brown, began winning primaries, it was too late.

And how much did he really want to be president to begin with? I keep thinking of that Roger Mudd interview with Kennedy on CBS that ran in November of 1979, days before Kennedy even officially announced his candidacy. Mudd asked the simple, softball question of why do you want to be president. Kennedy, inexplicably, was never able to coherently answer it. (See below.) And then came the Iranian hostage crisis, which gave Carter enough breathing room to keep Kennedy from becoming a threat to his renomination.

The other "what if" about Ted Kennedy is, of course, health care. Would we all be screaming at each other had he been well enough to participate in the negotiations? In his latter years, Kennedy became a widely respected and even beloved figure. He became a giant in the Senate, not just for his decades of experience, but for his intellect, personal relationships, and booming voice. For all his liberal pedigree, he showed an unsual willingness to compromise, to make sure there was a bill that could pass, rather than just insist on an ideologically pure product. But I'm not sure that a healthy Ted Kennedy would have made a difference.

Once again, the passing of another Kennedy, and unanswerable questions.

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