Senator Edward Moore Kennedy of Massachusetts has a birth date any politician would envy: He arrived at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Boston on Feb. 22, 1932—the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. This week Ted Kennedy himself marks the passage of a half century filled with high drama and profound tragedy. First elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 30, he was heir to the Camelot legacy, a dream that faded after the assassinations of two of his brothers, a near-fatal plane crash and Chappaquiddick. His wife, Joan, won her battle over alcoholism, but their marriage ended last year, after 22 years and three children, and their divorce is pending. Their son Teddy courageously endured bone cancer that cost him a leg. In 1980 the Senator suffered his biggest political setback when he failed to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter. Now Kennedy is seeking reelection to his fourth full Senate term and finds himself the prime target of right-wing political activists. Relaxed and puffing on a cigar in his Senate office, Kennedy talked with PEOPLE’S Garry Clifford about his past and future.
What does turning 50 mean to you?
I agree with those who feel that age is a state of mind. I’m looking forward to the challenges of life ahead.
Have the years slowed you down?
No. I have a full, active life and do the things now that I did when I was young. I ski with the children, and I’m able to keep up with them pretty well. We sailed the same races last summer that I did as a boy. I still enjoy tennis. In our touch football games, though, I’m not chosen as quickly as I used to be. Instead of being second or third, I might be picked fourth or fifth.
What has given you the most satisfaction over those years?
I’d say the opportunity to make some difference in improving the quality of the human condition for the people that I represent—the people of Massachusetts, the country and also, to some extent, the world.
And your biggest setbacks?
Obviously, family tragedies have been the most meaningful and lasting ones for me. I don’t really dwell on the negative aspects of life or the reversals and defeats—I’ve had my share. I would hope that through those experiences, I’ve learned more about my own sense of values, about life and about what contributions I can make.
Does the “Kennedy image” work for you?
That’s such a cliché. If what is meant is a devotion to public service, then I think we have had a sense of continuity and consistency. I’ve never denied that being a Kennedy has had its advantages. The greatest, I think, was the opportunity to know my brothers and understand how they approached problems and to get an insight into their sensitivity and strong commitment to people’s needs and problems. And having the opportunity to work with them after I was elected to the Senate was both an enormous education and a great advantage to me. I would certainly accept that.
And the drawbacks to being a Kennedy?
I think it’s basically a question of high standards being set by my brothers and being measured by those constantly. Not that I object, but it’s something that takes place.
What do you think of President Reagan’s performance to date?
He has been very effective and successful in his relationships with the Congress and in communicating with the American people. I think there is a separation between the support for his programs and support for him personally. I would expect that as time goes on that separation would narrow.
Doesn’t it bother you to be in the minority party in the Senate and watch support for things you have fought for—health care, civil rights—slipping away?
Sure. I hope that our party will always stand for those in our society who for one reason or another are not included in the great mainstream of social, political or economic life. I always think that an important part of my responsibility will be to speak for the middle-income family, for the working man and woman, for the elderly and for the very young. I would think that this nation’s commitment to their interests is going to continue.
Are you worried about El Salvador?
Very. And if there’s going to be continued violation of human rights, I’m opposed to military aid and assistance. I think Americans have to stand for something. Six Americans have been brutally murdered there, and the investigation was slipshod and unbecoming. I’m absolutely convinced that political settlement is the way to end the violence. It can still be done. I don’t believe this Administration believes that.
Will the Democrats be more effective in 1982 in opposing the President’s programs than they have been so far?
There’s been an interesting evolution in the past year. Where there had been maybe a handful of us in Congress who felt that the economic course charted by the Administration was misguided, now many of our colleagues are coming to that position, not only Democrats but Republicans as well. There’s recognition that there are no simple, easy answers to the problems as was first suggested by this Administration. I think there will be a good deal more thoughtful consideration of alternatives.
As First Lady, Jackie Kennedy created a style. What about Nancy Reagan?
Jackie was a superb First Lady and brought great dignity to the White House. Mrs. Reagan is making a serious effort. It’s unfair to snap to conclusions. When she and President Reagan were nice enough to meet my mother, Mrs. Reagan was extremely kind, gracious and generous.
Will you be in the presidential race in 1984?
It seems like the 1980 election was over just yesterday, and now I’m involved in running for Senate reelection this year. NCPAC [the National Conservative Political Action Committee] has made me their No. 1 target. I don’t take them lightly. So all my efforts and energies are now devoted toward my 1982 Senate campaign. I hope to be involved in party activities and in making some contribution to the shaping of party positions in the Senate. I really have no plans beyond that.
Someone noticed that whenever you get ready to run you cut your hair and lose some weight.
Sometimes I do that even when I’m not running, but it is true that I do it when I am running.
Does it get harder to lose weight?
Well, since I was 12 or 14, I’ve always found that I had a propensity to put on weight easily, and so it’s always a challenge. I find that when I’m not traveling extensively or campaigning, then it’s controllable. But the lobsters and the corn-on-the-cob in the summers in Massachusetts are almost irresistible. I just try and push myself away from the table.
Is there such a thing as a Kennedy political dynasty and, if so, will it continue?
I’m extremely proud of all my nieces and nephews and my own children, and I would certainly hope that they devote some of their energies to public service. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to run for office, but I hope they would use their talents to try to make some useful contribution to our society.
What are some of them doing now?
Joe [Bobby Kennedy’s oldest son], for example, is running that Citizens’ Corporation on Energy, which has made a good deal of difference in lowering fuel costs for the elderly and needy in New England. Kathleen [Bobby’s oldest daughter] and Bobby Shriver are law clerks, and they’re active in different programs. As for my own children, Teddy [20 and a junior at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University] was one of the sponsors for a Summer Festival for the Handicapped on Boston Common last year. Kara [22, a Tufts University senior] is studying foreign policy. Patrick [14, a freshman at prep school] recently made a presentation to his class about Chinese medicine based on a trip he took with me over there a couple of years ago.
Do you and Joan get together often to discuss your children?
Sure. We have good communication. We’re good friends and see a fair amount of each other. We’re fortunate that the children are all very well, and I’m enormously devoted to her.
What does your mother think about her youngest reaching his 50th birthday?
Well, I think the family is more excited about her 92nd. That will be this summer. We’re having a big party.