Skip to main content

Ted Kennedy Passes the Torch

May 2024
10min read

In his last months, Ted Kennedy was inspired by passing the torch to a new generation.

kennedy and obama
"The torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy said on the eve of Obama's election. “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

Editor’s Note: John Farrell turned to writing biography after a distinguished career as a journalist at the Boston Globe and other publications. His biography of Richard Nixon won numerous awards and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Farrell adapted the following from his new book, Ted Kennedy: A Life.

Ted Kennedy would remember where he was in 2007 — aboard the Mya in Tarpaulin Cove, a favorite summer swimming spot in the Elizabeth Islands off Cape Cod — when the conversation turned to Senator Barack Obama’s nascent presidential campaign. His niece Caroline and her children were on board, and Ted was stirred by their enthusiasm. In the weeks to come, he would hear from others in the younger generations of Kennedys who told him how inspired they were by the Obama campaign, with its promise of generational change, racial justice, and liberal ideals.

Kennedy was struck as well by an intuitive feeling that the wind had changed: that, after thirty years of conservative alignment, the time in the cycle for progressive change had arrived once more. He could accelerate the cycle by endorsing Obama, or impede it by opting for a safer choice. This could be his final opportunity to reshape the future. He asked himself, “How much longer do you have?”

Kennedy was struck as well by an intuitive feeling that the wind had changed: that, after thirty years of conservative alignment, the time in the cycle for progressive change had arrived once more.

Kennedy had recruited Obama for the Labor Committee in 2004 and worked with him, sometimes uneasily, on immigration reform. The younger man had come to Kennedy in the spring of 2006 and told him he was thinking of running for president. Like Robert Kennedy, Obama was restless in the Senate, and Nevada senator Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders, recognizing this, had suggested he run sooner rather than later.

Obama recalled the traditional office tour, and then sitting as Kennedy spun stories. Then, “I hear there’s talk of you running for president,” Kennedy said. Unlikely, said Obama, but he asked for his counsel nonetheless.

“Yes, well, who was it who said there are one hundred senators who look in the mirror and see a president?” Kennedy said with a chuckle. “They ask, ‘Do I have what it takes?’ Jack, Bobby, me too, long ago. It didn’t go as planned, but things work out in their own way, I suppose . . .”

He trailed off, lost in thought. Obama watched, and “wondered how he took the measure of his own life, and his brothers’ lives, the terrible price each one of them had paid in pursuit of a dream. Then, just as suddenly, he was back,” Obama would recall, “his deep blue eyes fixed on mine, all business.”

“I won’t be wading in early,” Kennedy told his young colleague. No endorsement. “Too many friends.”

“But I can tell you this, Barack. The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time,” said Kennedy. “But you don’t choose the time; the time chooses you.”

Kennedy knew his tides; he remembered 1968, 1972, and 1976. And he knew his Julius Caesar. “Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have,” he told Obama. “Or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.”

kennedy young
Kennedy was just 30 years old in 1962 when he won a special election in Massachusetts to fill the vacant seat previously held by his brother John, who had taken office as the US president. Ted Kennedy Senate Archives

KENNEDY WATCHED HIS COLLEAGUE for the rest of that year, and the next, and his regard for Obama grew. He readily forgave the Illinois senator when a tape surfaced in which, during the Medicare drug battle, Obama had complained that Kennedy was old and tired.

Obama called to grovel. “Start the conversation,” Kennedy barked. Then he laughed. It’s okay, he said. He had once called his colleague from Illinois Osama.

Obama’s victory speech on the night of the Iowa caucuses moved Kennedy. “Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it,” Obama had told the nation.

“That was a speech,” Kennedy would recall. “That was a speech.”

Kennedy readily forgave the Illinois senator when a tape surfaced in which, during the Medicare drug battle, Obama had complained that Kennedy was old and tired.

There was, however, a factor that gave him pause. On Kennedy’s great cause — health care for all — Obama could sometimes seem clueless. It wasn’t that, starting out, the candidate’s plan was bad — it was that he didn’t have one, or even see the need to craft one. And, when criticizing his rivals’ proposals, he was short on fact and long on bluster. At an early health care policy briefing with his staff, Obama had spent the time fiddling with his BlackBerry. At a forum in Nevada in 2007, Obama’s lack of knowledge about health care was glaring; he embarrassed himself and ordered his staff to come up with a proposal. It was a political document, with no mandate for coverage. “Shame on you, Barack Obama!” Hillary Clinton scolded him when he maligned her call for an individual mandate as a Big Government intrusion. “Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal health care?”

But American presidential campaigns work both ways: the candidates speak to the people, and the people educate the candidates. Obama was hearing from the common folk who came to his town halls or cornered him on a rope line to describe the health care catastrophes striking their families and to plead for his help. The cool man’s heart was touched.

Kennedy, weighing an endorsement, needed more. The specifics were not as important as a vow of intent: what Kennedy had to have was Obama’s word that a universal health care plan would be a top priority. Obama and his team signaled his willingness. The two men clinched the deal in a phone call on Thursday, January 24. “Is there room on that train for old Teddy?” Kennedy asked.

The youngest of the three Kennedy brothers, Ted gave eulogies at both John and Robert's funerals.

Though few foresaw it, the world was headed toward economic calamity — the financial crisis of 2008. It would compel the new president to reorder his priorities. Aides would urge Obama to abandon his health care covenant. There was no space for a new, dreamy progressive initiative. He needed to focus, they told him, on steering the country through the worst recession since the Great Depression. But Obama did not waver. There were moments of quiet despair, when events upset him and all seemed doomed. But, first to last, he remembered and honored the promise he had made to Ted Kennedy, and the Americans on those rope lines, and he ordered the fleet to sail on.

KENNEDY’S ENDORSEMENT WAS ACCOMPANIED by Caroline’s op-ed in that Sunday’s New York Times declaring her support for Obama. For four days, the endorsements commanded the campaign news cycles.

In the rally at American University, before a raucous and ecstatic audience, Kennedy cocked his head and said, “I feel change in the air.” Like the legions of the New Frontier, “we, too, want a president who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American dream and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal and who can lift our spirits and make us believe again,” Kennedy said. “I have found that candidate.”

In the months before, Obama had taken a hands-off approach with Kennedy, calling the senator from time to time or having a mutual friend, Thomas Daschle, make the case. When Obama arrived, alone and unnoticed, at one of Kennedy’s birthday parties, he smiled wryly at how Bill and Hillary, who had sauntered in before him, commanded the attention of Ted and his guests. The Clintons, on the other hand, had badgered Kennedy — a high-pressure sales approach that irritated him. Nor did he much like it when Hillary, making the case for her own experience, praised Lyndon Johnson as the master chief executive who rescued the proposals of John Kennedy. 

And then there was a series of taunts and jeers aimed at Obama by the Clintons and their allies that, in Kennedy’s eyes, sailed too close to intolerance. Clinton associates made references to Obama’s youthful drug use, and the couple dismissed him as just another Jesse Jackson: a symbolic Black candidate who could not win. When Bill Clinton told Kennedy in a private conversation that Obama was barely fit to fetch them coffee, the senator simmered, and took issue with the Clinton campaign slurs.

Racism was the country’s original sin, he told Clinton. It was a constant threat, a dormant volcano like Mount St. Helens. Hatred was “a-burning” and men of good faith needed to suppress it, yet Bill and the others were fanning the flames. “Let’s get the hell off of this thing,” said Kennedy. The Clintons had had their chance, Kennedy believed. The Clinton presidency had seen too much squandered opportunity. The new era, with its progressive possibilities, called for a bold approach. Hillary, he felt, was the past.

Racism was the country’s original sin, Kennedy told Clinton. It was a constant threat, a dormant volcano like Mount St. Helens.

Belling the cat was another matter. The former president took the news quietly and the phone call ended. Kennedy heaved a sigh of relief. Then Clinton, his anger building, called back. The Clintons had campaigned and raised money for Kennedy when he desperately needed allies in 1994. Clinton had named Kennedy’s sister as the ambassador to Ireland. The Clinton administration had allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for Massachusetts and done scores of smaller favors. How could Kennedy do this?

HILLARY CLINTON WON NEW YORK, New Jersey, and California by narrow margins on Super Tuesday. She carried Massachusetts. But, in the kind of strategic oversights that would keep her from the presidency, her campaign neglected the little states. By packing the halls and sweeping up delegates in contests like the Idaho caucuses, the activists of an emerging “Obama coalition” won more states, and a virtual tie in votes and delegates that Tuesday — the day that was meant, but failed, to secure Clinton’s status as inevitable.

Kennedy followed his endorsement with commitment — taking campaign swings through the West, Northeast, and Southwest that added to his already intense schedule. He broke down, emotionally, and could not finish one speech after making a reference to his brother Robert. He was two hours late to a dinner party at his home in mid-May: he had stayed in the Senate, brokering a deal to protect the rights of unionized first responders. The following Saturday morning, at the house in Hyannis Port, he felt dizzy, sank into a chair, and suffered a seizure.

kennedy clinton
During the 2008 primary, Kennedy's longstanding relationship with the Clintons led him to face some pressure to support Hilary for the nomination.

Kennedy was taken to a hospital in Boston. He and his family were hopeful: many ailments can bring on convulsions. “Let’s have Legal Sea Food and watch the Red Sox,” he said. He was alert and feeling better the next morning. But the test results were grim. They revealed a deadly cancer, a malignant glioblastoma, in the upper left part of his brain. It was not an encapsulated growth, but the sort of aggressive tumor that migrates and reaches. He opted for a new course of treatment, a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and neurosurgery offered at Duke University. It could give him a year or more, the doctors said. Without it, he had weeks. He stretched it to fifteen months.

Kennedy was awake during the surgery, so the doctors could check with him and ensure that they were not robbing him of speech or sight. Despite their care, he lost the facility to form some words, and his range of eyesight narrowed. “I can take this,” he told his wife Vicki. “Nothing is worse than having your children have cancer. . . . Maybe I can be an example of how to face adversity. Maybe (what science and medicine will learn from) my treatment can end up helping somebody else.” The radiation treatments were administered at Massachusetts General. He drove up each day from the Cape. “He would see tots and youngsters dying of childhood cancers. Very sick, small children with brain tumors,” Vicki recalled. “He never felt sorry for himself. He said prayers for those kids.”

WHEN KENNEDY RETURNED FROM his post-surgical recuperation in May, he met with his aides.

“Oh, Jeff, hi. How are you doing?” he would say, as he worked his way through the staff. “Oh, hey, Melanie. How are you doing?”

Then he came to David Bowen, who had been charged with producing the health care legislation. 

“Where’s my bill?” Kennedy asked him.

Kennedy’s way of dying was to set goals; to cross each off his list and move on to the next. As Obama was clinching the Democratic nomination, Kennedy spent much of that summer of 2008 on the Cape, drawing strength from home, sailing, and his family, and reporting to Boston for treatment. But in July, he made a most notable, surprising, and emotional return to the Senate to cast a needed vote on a Medicare measure. Leaning on a silver-tipped cane, he was escorted into the chamber amid tears and cheers by son Patrick, Obama, Chris Dodd, John Kerry, and Harry Reid. It was a grand moment, but not without a price. His plane back to Boston was delayed on the tarmac, and, stuck in his seat, he suffered a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs. In his frail condition, it might well have killed him if an alert nurse had not fretted over changes in his vital signs.

Kennedy’s way of dying was to set goals; to cross each off his list and move on to the next.

He later raced his boat, threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, attended the Harvard-Yale game, and collected an honorary degree from his alma mater up in Cambridge. The queen of England, whom he had met when they were little children, bestowed a title: Knight of the British Empire. He led a sing-along from a chair beside the piano at Thanksgiving, grew a beard at Christmas, and delighted the youngest Kennedys as Santa Claus.

“It’s the goal of every Irishman to be able to be a witness at your own eulogy,” Senator Dodd said of the tide of honors. “This is sheer heaven for him.”

His grails “gave him purpose,” Vicki remembered. A preeminent goal was to travel to Denver and speak at the opening session of the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. His illness left him grasping for words at times and using pronouns without antecedents ("So, what else is new?" those close to him said), and so he needed to arduously prepare. “This is what I want to say,” he told speechwriter Robert Shrum, who dropped by every morning and carefully constructed a speech with words his friend could enunciate. After finishing the speechwriting, they rehearsed with a teleprompter in the big house at Hyannis Port.

To limit the risk of embolisms, Kennedy was flown on a larger jet — with space for him to recline — to Colorado, only to be stricken by intense pain while airborne and then rushed to the hospital in Denver. There, he was examined, as he put it, “by every ologist known to man.” The diagnosis was reassuring — kidney stones, perhaps a by-product of his chemotherapy. His treatment required an intravenous injection of a narcotic painkiller, but, having gotten that far, Kennedy insisted on proceeding. “Once they knew what was wrong — and that it was something he could tough out,” his son Patrick remembered, “he was even more committed to appearing . . . (though) he knew he was going to walk onstage in excruciating pain and still at risk for a seizure.”

kennedy grave
Kennedy died of a malignant brain tumor (glioblastoma) at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in 2009. He was 77.

His remarks were pared in half by Shrum, which negated Kennedy’s preparation. He was now to give “a speech he had never seen,” Vicki recalled. After an evocative film by documentarian Ken Burns, and Caroline’s introduction, Vicki helped him to the podium.

“I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to its best ideals, and to elect Barack Obama president,” he told the delegates.

“This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy said. “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.