John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy have, for the past half century, been among the most prominent symbolic figures of American liberalism. But by any real reading of history, both men fall pretty short of what I think might be described as "progressive ideals." JFK started the Vietnam War, and as attorney general, RFK pushed the CIA into one failed plot after another to assassinate Fidel Castro, even enlisting the aid of organized crime. Both RFK and JFK were tragically murdered, but paradoxically, their early deaths are part of what makes inflating their accomplishments so easy.
Edward Kennedy lacked the mystique of his brothers, partially because he was forced to wear his flaws on his sleeve; no one will ever forget Chappaquiddick. In some ways I wonder if Teddy got all the grief people couldn't give his brothers. There was something cruel about the way he was sometimes portrayed, as if he were the loser little brother because he would never quite capture the imagination of the left the way his brothers did. But in terms of actual political accomplishments, Ted Kennedy far surpasses them: His accomplishments on expanding health-care coverage, strengthening voting rights, civil rights, and helping workers are too numerous to list here, although Harold Meyerson does a good job of summarizing: "He was the go-to-guy, the champion, the orator, the deal-maker for the uninsured, the undocumented, the unable-to-join-unions; the senior senator from Massachusetts and for all the excluded in American life."
And not just American life. When Kennedy journeyed to South Africa in 1985, he spoke to an illegal gathering outside Nelson Mandela's prison, calling for his release. When he returned to the Senate, he helped override President Ronald Reagan's veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act which imposed U.S. sanctions on the apartheid regime.
Ted Kennedy wasn't a symbol of American liberalism. He was the executor of American liberalism: He was the real deal, he got it done. He couldn't make the whole country fall in love with him. But centuries from now, when the sentimental attachment of those who can remember the older Kennedy brothers are gone, it is the youngest Kennedy sibling who will be remembered, warts and all, for having most shaped America's path, and most exemplified its ideals. He is, in short, the only Kennedy who wasn't overrated, the only one we saw for who he was, the one we will remember fondly for what he did, not what he said or what he might have been.
-- A. Serwer
Photo of the Kennedy Brothers on Palm Beach in 1957 via Wikimedia