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Photos: Kennedy's Life

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  1. Joseph and Rose Kennedy with eight of their children on July 8, 1934, in Massachusetts. Seated in the front row are Patricia, Rose and Joseph Kennedy with baby Edward, Kathleen, Eunice and Rosemary. John, Jeanne and Robert are behind. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A young Ted Kennedy attends the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London with his sister, Jean, on April 11, 1938. Their father Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador to Great Britain at the time, was paying a call on the king. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York celebrates the Nuptial High Mass as Edward Moore Kennedy weds Joan Bennett at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Bronxville, N.Y., on Nov. 29, 1958. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Edward Kennedy, right, and his brothers John and Robert, are seen in Hyannis Port, Mass., during John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign on July 20, 1960. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ted Kennedy inspects the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Street on Feb. 23, 1962. Later that year, Kennedy was elected to the Senate, taking the seat his brother John had occupied before winning the White House. He held the seat for the next 47 years – serving longer than all but two senators in history. (Reichert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Jacqueline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy watch as soldiers load her husband John F. Kennedy's casket for his funeral at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 25, 1963. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ted Kennedy lies on a gurney, suffering from a broken back, on Oct. 19, 1964, four months after surviving a small-plane crash near Southampton, Mass., that killed his aide and the pilot. His wife Joan sits beside him. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Former astronaut John Glenn, a close friend of the Kennedy family, gives the flag that was draped over the casket of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to the slain senator's brother during ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery on June 8, 1968. To the right of Edward Kennedy are the senator's widow, Ethel Kennedy, and their oldest son, Joseph, 15. Back to camera on the right is President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spectators look on as police work near the car driven by Edward Kennedy that plunged off a bridge into the water off Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., in July 1969. Kennedy escaped from the submerged car but his passenger, 29-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died. She had worked as a secretary for his brother Robert.

    Kennedy told police he took a wrong turn and accidently drove off the bridge. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a suspended sentence in what would become known as the "Chappaquiddick incident." (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Edward Kennedy shakes hands with well-wishers outside Boston's Faneuil Hall, where he announced his candidacy for president in November 1979. He would lose the Democratic nomination to incumbent Jimmy Carter. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Kennedy and his second wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, after his speech to the second session of the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004, in Boston. (Tom Fox / Dallas Morning News / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Ted Kennedy speaks during an immigration rally at the National Mall on Sept. 7, 2006, in Washington. (Kevin Wolf / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ted Kennedy pushes his dogs to leave his office after a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on June 8, 2007. Always a fan of Portuguese water dogs, Bo, the Obama girls’ dog, was a gift from Kennedy and his wife, Vicki. (Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. President George W. Bush signs the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act on Dec. 12, 2007. Standing, from left, are, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.; Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich; Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del.; Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

    Kennedy spearheaded the reauthorization of the legislation, which built on the success of and sought to strengthen the then-43-year-old Head Start program. (Charles Dharapak / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Kennedy joins Sen. Barack Obama during a campaign event for the Democratic presidential hopeful at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. (Justin Lane / EPA file) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Kennedy leaves Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on May 21, 2008, with his wife, Vicki, right, and niece Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, center right. Kennedy was diagnosed at the hospital with a malignant brain tumor. (Stephan Savoia / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A sea of signs hails Kennedy as he addresses the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 25, 2008. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Kennedy arrives on stage ahead of the inauguration of President Barack Obama at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20. Later the same day, the Massachusetts senator was attending the inaugural luncheon when he suffered what observers said appeared to be a seizure. Kennedy was taken away by an ambulance. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Kennedy greets Michelle Obama on Jan. 20 as she arrives for her husband's inauguration as president. (Pat Benic / pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Medical personnel wheel Kennedy into an ambulance outside the U.S. Capitol. Kennedy had been attending a luncheon after Obama's inauguration when he was stricken. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is at right. (John Moore / pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Kennedy walks with his wife, Victoria, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., after speaking with the media before a Feb. 9 vote on the stimulus bill on Capitol Hill. (Lawrence Jackson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Obama presents the first pen to Sen. Kennedy after signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act at The SEED Public Charter School on April 21 in Washington. The bill would more than triple the number of AmeriCorps volunteers in the U.S. at a cost of roughly a billion dollars a year, over the next five years.
    The signing was one of Kennedy's final public appearances. (Martin H. Simon / pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Family Portrait of the Kennedys
    Bettmann / Corbis
    Above: Slideshow (22) A Democratic icon - Kennedy's Life
  2. Image:  Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica
    Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (27) A Democratic icon - Funeral mass
  3. Image: Mourners Attend Celebration Of Life Memorial Service For Ted Kennedy
    Chris Hondros / Getty Images
    Slideshow (27) A Democratic icon - Honoring the senator
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/26/2009 12:13:29 PM ET 2009-08-26T16:13:29

With Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death comes not only the end of a political dynasty, but also of one of the most enduring — and cherished — American myths. Camelot is no more.

The myth was so powerful that it transcended generations. Unlike many allusions to the 1960s, it needs no explanation to those who don’t remember that time.

John F. Kennedy, the eldest brother, was King Arthur, and wife Jackie his Guinevere. Bobby, the second brother, was Lancelot, defender of the powerless and, it is said, secretly in love with the queen.

And then there was the youngest of them all: Teddy, in whom the best and the worst of everything Kennedy seemed to come together.

It was he who would ultimately become this Camelot’s Galahad. Though far from perfect and nowhere near a man of great virtue, Edward M. Kennedy was the knight who ultimately set for himself a quest. Its object was no less momentous than the Holy Grail itself: universal health care.

Embracing the legend
If the analogy is imperfect, it is only because of the myth to which it is attached. The Camelot of legend never existed, except in the minds of people who needed there to be such a place. It and the people in it were always what we wanted — and needed — them to be.

This is why the myth is so powerful. Camelot was nothing more or less than a reflection of the Garden of Eden, that perfect place inhabited by perfect people in some bygone age when such places and such people existed.

Ted Kennedy undoubtedly understood that. He certainly embraced it, idolizing his older brothers, fully believing that there was a happily-ever-after that men could forge, if only they were bold enough to do so.

And in the end, Ted Kennedy also came closer to the myth than his brothers ever could. For that, he could thank the one gift his brothers never had: the opportunity to live his life to its natural end.

An ailing Arthur
John F. Kennedy may have been president when “Camelot” was a hit on Broadway, but he was no King Arthur. Arthur was virtuous and pure, a powerful warrior glowing with health. JFK only looked the part.

His greatest virtue was his movie-star good looks, which projected the image of other virtues that we willingly ascribed to him. In real life, he was, as Mae West said of herself, “as pure as the driven slush.”

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Physically, he looked the part of the warrior who had survived the destruction of PT 109 in the Pacific theater during World War II and had swum to safety dragging one of his injured crewmen with him. But in reality, according to his biographer, Robert Dallek, he was a physical wreck. The newsreels showed him playing touch football on the White House lawn. They did not show the massive doses of medications that allowed him to do so.

To get through the days, Kennedy took, “steroids for his Addison's disease, pain-killers for his back, antispasmodics for his colitis, antibiotics for urinary-tract infections, antihistamines for allergies and, on at least one occasion, an antipsychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed had been brought on by the antihistamines,” Dallek wrote. At times, the hero of America’s Camelot reportedly could not even put on his own shoes and socks.

As president, JFK was inspirational. He also nearly plunged the world into nuclear war. But none of it mattered. In 20th-century America, as in every other culture from the birth of civilization, image trumps reality.

It is no different today. Humans have never been very good at letting the facts get in the way of a good story. And the story of the Kennedys is more than good; it is great, the stuff that myths are made of.

This is a family that Aeschylus and Sophocles and Homer would have written about, a family that Norse poets would have immortalized in sagas, a family that medieval troubadours would have sung about, a family that Shakespeare would have devoted a trilogy to, a family that America transformed into a vision of its ideal self.

Expectations and excess
Teddy was the kid brother of that family, the youngest kid who was faced with the Everest of expectations established by his three older brothers.

Joseph Jr. had died heroically as a pilot defending London against the Nazi blitz. Jack, the second-oldest, became the embodiment of the Camelot myth that would follow the family to the present. Bobby, the third brother, was the brilliant orator and idealist who was on his way to the White House in 1968 when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.

Video: Remembering Ted Kennedy

It was a lot to live up to. It was both a curse and a blessing that Teddy alone among the brothers lived out his natural life. It was a curse because the reality of his personal life became public at Chappaquiddick, when Mary Jo Kopechne, a young campaign worker, died, and the famous senator neglected for nine hours to tell anyone about it.

There was more. After his unsuccessful challenge to incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ted Kennedy outraged his Catholic base by divorcing his wife, Joan.

Much of the 1980s seemed to be a blur of excess, of public drunkenness and lechery. In a Greek tragedy, that would have been the last act: a great man brought down by his own excesses, due to the original sin of hubris.

Remorse and redemption
But life doesn’t always imitate art. In the 1990s, Ted Kennedy met his second wife, Vicki, and finally became what the Kennedy myth had always held him and his brothers to be.

His redemption began with a very public confession of his own sins. In a remarkable 1991 speech at Harvard, the senior senator from Massachusetts did something that we were not accustomed to seeing our political heroes do: He admitted to being less than what he seemed.

“I recognize my own shortcomings, the faults and the conduct of my private life,” he said in the distinctive Kennedy accent. “I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.”

In an interview with NBC News the following year, he explained that speech, saying, “I owed them some explanation, or at least the recognition that I understood.”

That would be what ultimately set Ted Kennedy apart, and what transformed him into a man who would be eulogized as one of the greatest senators in American history. Unlike so many others, Ted Kennedy proved by his actions that he really did understand.

His legislative resume is a towering testament to his ideals. And in those ideals, he was always consistent. His brother Bobby had swung from the right to the left of the political scale, and Jack had been a centrist and a political pragmatist. But Ted was consistent for four decades in his defense of the least of us, in his belief in the common man and woman.

Repentance and respect
It takes more than age to become known as a statesman. Strom Thurmond served forever in the Senate without ever being accused of such a thing. Ted Kennedy didn’t have that distinction given to him. He earned it.

He would give a lot of credit to his second wife, Vicki, in whom he found a soul mate and an inner peace that had been lacking in his life. He told NBC that those later years were “a different plateau of my life; a different chapter of my life.”

In the end, there would be a final bit of Kennedy tragedy in his death. It could not be said that he died too young; at 77, he had lived as full a life as anyone could hope for. It was rife with imperfection, but that proves nothing except that he was human. Much as the mythmakers would have us believe otherwise, there are none of us who are perfect, none of us who are without sin.

What made him heroic to many in the end was that he accepted his sins, repented, and fulfilled his vow to do better. By his final days, he was as respected a man on both sides of the aisle as is ever likely to be found in Washington, D.C.

Yet still he died too soon. The great dream of his career, the Holy Grail that this knight of Camelot spent a lifetime seeking, had been to see universal health care in the United States. And at just the moment that that goal was finally coming into sight, a moment when his leadership and intellect were most desperately needed, he died.

The finish line of a lifelong race had been in sight. He never reached it.

Sophocles and Shakespeare could have done something with that. So could have Lerner and Loewe.

More on: Edward Kennedy

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