Remembering Ted Kennedy, 'Family Man'

Sen. Edward Kennedy receives a kiss from his wife Vicki. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images i i

hide captionSen. Edward Kennedy receives a kiss from his wife Vicki before his address to the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Edward Kennedy receives a kiss from his wife Vicki. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Edward Kennedy receives a kiss from his wife Vicki before his address to the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Hear The Full Interview With Vicki Kennedy

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy came from a family whose siblings "loved each other with a vengeance," dictated notes for a future memoir after his First Communion, and faced the illness that killed him with his distinctive mix of optimism and pragmatism.

So says Victoria Reggie Kennedy, his wife of 17 years, in her first news broadcast interview since the senator's death in August.

From a library filled with family photos, Vicki Kennedy talked to Scott Simon about life with a man who made family and friends the center of days jammed with public business.

"He tended to family, and he tended to friends," she says. "He made time for the people he cared about in his life."

She says there seemed to be more than 24 hours in one of Ted Kennedy's days.

"I think the rules of nature were suspended when it came to him," she says. "He filled every moment."

And until the last, she says, he maintained his vital role.

"Teddy was so much still the man with the big shoulders," she recalls. "He was the person being strong for all of us. The only day he spent in bed was the day he died. That was the only day he spent in bed. He was a force of nature."

She does not think of his last summer as "a sad time."

"It was a beautiful time," she says. "I'll be forever grateful for that."

'An Old-Fashioned Courtship'

Vicki and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Denis Reggie/Courtesy TWELVE i i

hide captionVicki and Sen. Ted Kennedy on their wedding day, July 3, 1992.

Denis Reggie/Courtesy of TWELVE
Vicki and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Denis Reggie/Courtesy TWELVE

Vicki and Sen. Ted Kennedy on their wedding day, July 3, 1992.

Denis Reggie/Courtesy of TWELVE

Their romance began on the night of a wedding anniversary — the 40th for Vicki Kennedy's parents. Her father suggested they invite the sailing fanatic they called "The Commander" over for dinner.

She recalls that she greeted the senator by saying: "What's wrong Kennedy, couldn't you get a date?"

"Well, I thought you'd be my date," he said.

"Dream on," she shot back.

But it wasn't a dream. They were married a year later, after a "really old-fashioned courtship" that included nightly dinners at her home. She would arrive with groceries and find Ted Kennedy coloring on the floor with her 5-year-old daughter, or doing homework with her 8-year-old son.

"We had a really old-fashioned courtship, and we just clicked. We just clicked," she recalls. "We had shared values, shared beliefs. He understood me, and I understood him. Who can explain why? It just happened."

'He Was A Family Man'

Vicky Kennedy dismisses a question about what it was like to "be a Kennedy," but she notes the power of the Kennedy clan.

"The family was the center of his life," she says. "I think it defined in so many ways who he was. He was a family man. He loved his family."

And he especially loved the siblings with whom he had shared so much love and so much loss.

"They just loved each other with just a vengeance, they really did," she says, noting that Ted's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, moved to Hyannisport to be near Ted as both faced illnesses.

She insists her husband spent little time worrying about the "gossip" that his famous family — and some of the more infamous events of his own life — eternally generates. He was taught early, by his parents, not to pay attention, she says.

"Teddy had a philosophy: Keep your eye on the ball and keep moving forward," she says. "He didn't read gossip. He was so sure of what he was doing and why he was doing it."

'He Did Not Intend To Excuse Himself'

But in the end, she notes, Kennedy was bent on addressing his own foibles head on. He had long planned to write a memoir, taking "copious notes" throughout his life.

"I have a copy of his notes which he dictated to his nanny, on his First Communion, which he received from Pope Pius XII," she says with a laugh.

He approached the book "determined not to make excuses, not to be a bellyacher," she says. "He did not intend to excuse himself."

The writing process made use of Ted Kennedy's organizational skills.

"Teddy was the most disciplined person that I ever knew, which is something that may be at odds with what people might think," she says. "He was very scheduled, and he would meet that schedule."

The work concluded on time — in fact, with a new sense of urgency — despite Kennedy's illness. The brain tumor that killed him at age 77 was revealed by a sense of dizziness that turned out to be a major seizure.

"Getting that diagnosis was a bolt from the blue," she recalls. "It came out of nowhere. No symptoms, no nothing. It was the beginning of a journey that was so unexpected."

He continued without symptoms as the disease progressed.

"It was just so hard to fathom that this was what we were dealing with," she recalls. "He was always focused. He never felt sorry for himself. He always looked forward with hope, with optimism, but also with a lot of realism."

'He Understood The Suffering Of Other People'

She sees that combination of "optimism" and "pragmatism" as a rare and defining character trait that allowed her husband to focus on "the best in people."

"I think he had suffered in his own life ... and I think he understood the suffering of other people."

"He was a good judge of people. He learned a lot about people. He was always looking for what the good part of someone was."

And that approach helped him make lifelong friends across party lines.

"You can be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but you're not enemies," she says, describing her husband's attitude. "You disagree with how to get there, but you still love this country. You still want what's best. You just differ on how to get there."

'Teddy Was The Senator'

Vicki Kennedy is a lawyer who grew up in a politically oriented family, but says she did not consider following her husband into the Senate.

"It was never, never, never, never of interest to me," she says. "I felt like we had Sen. Kennedy in our household ... Teddy was the senator. Teddy was the senator."

Excerpt: 'True Compass'

cover

The Woman Who Changed My Life

1991

I have always believed that there are three stages of enjoying life: looking forward to something; experiencing it; and then having the memory of it.

There came a point in my own life when I had to admit that I'd stopped looking forward to things.

There had been so much loss. I understand that everyone suffers loss; it is hardly unique to me. Yet preparing myself to savor new experiences, and especially experiences that involved new personal commitments—I faced the fact that I no longer wanted to take that risk.

This is not to say I didn't enjoy life during those years. I am an enjoyer. I have enjoyed being a senator; I've enjoyed my children and my close friends; I've enjoyed books and music and well-prepared food, especially with a generous helping of cream sauce on the top. I have enjoyed the company of women. I have enjoyed a stiff drink or two or three, and I've relished the smooth taste of a good wine. At times, I've enjoyed these pleasures too much.

I've heard the tales about my exploits as a hell-raiser—some accurate, some with a wisp of truth to them, and some so outrageous that I can't imagine how anyone could really believe them. But I never tried to correct the record.

I decided long ago never to respond to tabloid gossip. Never. Once you respond to that kind of trash, you elevate it to something worth responding to. And anyway, once you begin refuting, you can never stop. Because then if you fail to deny even one such story, that might be taken as evidence that it is true. (The downside here, of course, is that rumors and fictions frequently enter the public consciousness as settled fact.)

True Compass
By Edward M. Kennedy
Hardcover, 512 pages
Twelve
List Price: $35.00

Still, there was enough that I was doing to cause concern to those who cared about me. My friends didn't tell me that my drinking or my private life was getting out of control, but maybe that's because we were all having too much fun at the time. Certainly it didn't affect my Senate work. What was unspoken between me and my friends was my reason for excess. It was all part of my desire to escape, to keep moving, to avoid painful memories. And so I lived this string of years in the present tense, not despondently, because that is not my nature, but certainly with a sense of the void.

All of this began to change when I rang the doorbell of the home in Northwest D.C. where I had been invited to dinner on the evening of June 17, 1991, and found myself looking into the beautiful hazel eyes of Victoria Reggie.

The occasion was a dinner party to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Vicki's parents, Judge Edmund and Doris Reggie. The Reggie and Kennedy families had been friends for many years, beginning with the judge's strong support for Jack as the presidential nominee in 1960. Inviting me had been the elder Reggies' idea, Vicki later told me. They'd said, "Oh, let's invite the Commander"—their nickname for me. Vicki and I were not strangers. Over the years, I'd seen her and her family a fair amount, usually on Nantucket where her family has a summer home, and I'd dined from time to time with them when the Reggies were in Washington. I was aware that Vicki and Grier Raclin had ended their nine-year marriage the previous summer.

When I walked up to Vicki's door that evening, I really wasn't expecting anything other than a pleasant evening with old friends. I got quite a bit more.

As Vicki ushered me into her home, she looked at me quizzically and then leaned over and looked behind me. And with a teasing half smile on her face, my future wife sort of looked me up and down and asked, "What's wrong? Couldn't you get a date?"

"I thought you'd be my date," I fired back. To which she responded, "Dream on, Kennedy."

I learned later that her mother had overheard the exchange and was horrified: "Oh, Vicki! You're just never going to find a man if you talk like that!" But I was enjoying the banter. Vicki was quick-witted, playful—and fun.

So, all right, perhaps it wasn't love at first sight. Vicki, in fact, charges me with not even remembering her from those '70s days, when she interned in my Senate office mailroom with her long hair pressed straight down below her shoulders, a charge to which I plead nolo contendere.

But as much as Vicki and I had seen each other at various events over the years, I think that anniversary dinner party night was the first time I really saw Vicki. I helped her as she took the place setting away for the date I didn't bring, and I hung out with her in the kitchen as she prepared dinner. We shared easy conversation about issues of the day and spent a lot of the evening laughing. I hadn't felt that relaxed or lighthearted in a long time.

Maybe that was what encouraged me to ask Vicki, as I left her house that night, "Well, can I call you? How about dinner tomorrow night?" Vicki said, "Sure." I've since learned that after the door closed, she went, "Did I just say yes? Have I lost my mind?"

Bear in mind that this was a woman who did not exactly have to worry much about whether she would ever "find a man." Vicki was then in the midst of a very fulfilling career in the law. She was a successful partner in a law firm in Washington, and she was rearing two young children. Her life was full and very busy.

We had dinner the next night, and in the weeks following I did everything I could think of to impress this amazing woman. I sent her bouquets of roses and fresh wildflowers. I telephoned her—a lot. We went out to restaurants. We had dinner at my home. I met her friends. She met mine. And we kept up the fun banter. As strange as it now seems, we didn't discuss any of the difficult things that were going on. One night at dinner, I did make reference to a poll that showed my approval rating plummeting to 48 percent, and Vicki comforted me by cracking, "That's a relief, because I never go out with anyone whose approval is less than 47." I developed instant friendships with her children: Curran, who was eight then, and Caroline, who was five. There is no question that I'd have been good pals with these two even if I hadn't been dating their mother. Curran was seriously into sports, so I found myself following football and baseball even more closely than usual; and I spent a lot of time coloring pictures on the living room rug with Caroline—who has blossomed into a very fine painter, incidentally. At night, I would read them to sleep.

One of our best adventures was trick-or-treating that first Halloween. I really enjoy Halloween with children, and used to make the neighborhood rounds with my own, along with my nieces, every October 31. On this night, Vicki and I walked with Curran and Caroline through their neighborhood. We received a lot of surprised looks from Vicki's neighbors that night, but none more than at the house occupied by the cultural attaché of China.

The children rang the doorbell and a gentleman opened the door to give them candy. As he looked up, he saw me and squealed, "Oooooooh, Kennedy!" I put out my hand to shake his and said, "How are you?" He asked us to come in and sit on the sofa. Actually, it was more like he ordered us to come in and sit on the sofa. Vicki and I looked at each other and the children kept asking why we weren't still trick-or-treating.

We could hear the gentleman who opened the door as he ran upstairs and knocked on what we assumed to be the cultural attaché's room. We heard them speaking in loud, rapid Chinese, which we could of course not understand, except for the periodic shouting out my name: "Ted Kennedy!" This back-and-forth went on for a few minutes. Vicki and I decided that the gentleman was trying to convince the attaché that it really was me and the attaché was telling him that it was just some person in a Ted Kennedy mask. Eventually we tiptoed out the door.

Ironically, given that we've spent so many happy hours together at sea, our first little falling-out was over a disagreement about sailing. (Vicki maintains that "falling-out" is too strong a term for it.) In mid-August, I sailed Mya over from Hyannis to Nantucket to pay a visit on the judge and Doris and, of course, Vicki, who was visiting them. I invited Vicki to sail back to Hyannis Port with me.

August was the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. The opening show, just then spiraling northeastward along the coast, was a doozie. Hurricane Bob had already bumped twice against Rhode Island, and according to news bulletins was now heading straight for Massachusetts. On Cape Cod, its peak winds would later be clocked at 125 miles an hour.

For some reason, Vicki was not terribly interested in sailing back with me. Her exact words, as I recall them, were, "There is no way." This hardly seemed like a flat refusal to me, and so I repeated the offer. "Come on," I said. "We're going to get ahead of the hurricane and sail back." Vicki said, "There is just no way." She was beginning to sound as though she might be serious.

(Full disclosure here: my wish to get Mya back to Hyannis Port before the hurricane hit was not frivolous. I knew that if I left her on the Nantucket side, where there was little protection, the high winds and waves would smash her to pieces. This in fact was the fate of many boats caught on that stretch of land. Far better shielding awaited her on the Hyannis side, and I had no doubt that I could beat the big winds—which I did.)

I won't say that I was hurt by Vicki's refusal to trust me at the helm of a fifty-foot boat sailing across open water in the path of a Category 2 hurricane. But I didn't call her for two weeks. I was back in my office after Labor Day thinking of what excuse I was going to come up with to end my radio silence, when the secretary in my Washington office buzzed me with the message that I had a call waiting from Vicki Reggie. I think it was the first time she had ever originated a call to me.

At the end of the conversation—I can't remember the exact topic; she'd called to wish me luck on something or other—I cleared my throat and said, "Well, listen, I was just thinking, uh—I know you don't want to go out a lot because of your children, so, uh—I thought I would come over to your house for dinner."

From then on, I began going to Vicki's house for dinner nearly every night—as often as my schedule would allow. Some evenings I arrived early and had the chance to spend fun time with Curran and Caroline before their mother got home from work. Sometimes I would bring friends of mine along with me, and Vicki would obligingly cook for them as well. She loves to cook. And with her southern roots and Lebanese heritage, she really turns out some delicious meals.

Vicki would put the children to bed around eight, and as she came back down the stairs we would often hear them calling, "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!" The first time this happened, Vicki began to apologize for it, but I interrupted her. "Oh no," I said. "I think a child calling for his mother is the most beautiful sound in the world."

We really had an old-fashioned courtship, and I loved it that way. During those autumn evenings, Vicki and I would talk as she cooked. We talked during dinner. And then, after dinner, we'd talk some more. I usually headed back to my house by 10:30 or so—we both had work the next day and Vicki had to get the children off to school in the morning as well—but I knew we'd be together the next evening anyway.

We really took the time to know each other and we grew very close. As the months went on, I realized that I loved this woman very deeply and that my love for her was overcoming all the defenses I'd built up in myself against the potential heartbreak of marrying again. One night, as Vicki and I were listening to La Bohème—we both love opera—I asked whether she wanted to go to New York to hear it performed. She quickly agreed. But the date for the performance was two months away. I had decided to propose to Vicki at the opera, but I wanted to surprise her. So I waited—for two months. And in the meantime, I made sure that we spent more time with my children and my sisters and sisters-in-law.

I asked Vicki to marry me—and she said yes—during the performance of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on January 14, 1992. We decided to keep our engagement quiet for a while, while we worked out the plans for our wedding. In mid-March, I felt the time had come to tell Kara, Teddy, and Patrick, and Vicki felt she should tell Curran and Caroline too. Everyone was asked to keep the wonderful news to themselves, but secrecy was too much to ask of then six-year-old Caroline. She told only "one person" in her kindergarten class, and he told his parents, who apparently worked for the Washington Post!

We announced our engagement in March and I gave Vicki an engagement ring in April when we were visiting my sister Pat, who had rented a house for Easter in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We were snorkeling at Buck Island Reef—named by President Kennedy to be part of the National Park system in 1961—where I had placed the ring for Vicki to find near a coral head. I'm just thankful that a big grouper didn't swim away with the ring before she saw it.

Our wedding, a private ceremony with our immediate families, took place at my McLean house on July 3, 1992. As a wedding gift to my bride, I did an oil painting of daffodils. The two of us had been reading William Wordsworth's poem "Daffodils" together several weeks earlier, and it was one of the readings we chose for our wedding. The poem begins, "I wander'd lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o'er vales and hills / When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils." The wildflowers lift the poet's spirits, and charm him by the way they seem to dance in the wind in a long line beside a bay. When later he lies in solitude on his couch, the image of the flowers returns to him: "And then my heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the daffodils."

From True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy. Copyright 2009 by Edward Kennedy. Published by Twelve Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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