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Ted Kennedy: a leader strengthened by threats

Vincent Bzdek
Vincent Bzdek is Night Editor of the Washington Post's Universal News Desk and author of The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled and Woman of the House: The Rise of Nancy Pelosi.

"The essence of political leadership," Ted Kennedy once said, "is basically challenge and response." He believed leadership is most effective when it builds up rather that knocks down, that leadership should call people to higher principle and bolder endeavor than they thought themselves capable of again and again.

"When John Kennedy called of going to the moon," the senator said at President Obama's nominating convention in Denver in 2008, "he didn't say it's too far to go there. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights."

Kennedy believed that challenge and response was an essential aspect of the soul of American society, "one of the things that's made it sort of great."

What we found out this week from newly released FBI files was how personal that philosophy was, how much his own career in public service was forged by challenge and response. Until yesterday, we didn't know how pervasive the death threats were during Kennedy's lifetime, how much they colored so much of what he did, and how they may have contributed to his reckless behavior over the years.

He lived with constant threats after his brother President John Kennedy was killed. According to one FBI file, Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy's assassin, threatened to have Ted Kennedy killed and asked a fellow inmate to execute his plans. Kennedy was still being threatened five years after he ran for president in 1980.

His own response to those threats, and the never-ending tragedies that haunted the Kennedy family, not to mention his own self-inflicted tragedies such as the Chappaquiddick drowning, may have spurred his success as a leader. Those tragedies may have caused Kennedy endless problems in his personal life, but he continued his public service. He was emotionally unhinged by his brothers' deaths, he frankly admits in his autobiography, but he used his grief to take political action that he believed served the best interest of the American people. He was constantly in motion during his 46-year Senate career, authoring more than 2,500 bills and casting more than 15,000 votes.

Kennedy was a flawed human being, but he somehow alchemized tragedy and fear into a narrative of perseverance. There may be no better example of Kennedy's ability to use his personal pain to try to inspire others than the speech he gave in the Senate five months after President Kennedy's death.

"If his life and death both had a meaning," the senator said quietly to a hushed gallery, "it was that we should not hate but love one another. We should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace."

Less than two months after that speech, the Senate passed President Kennedy's Civil Rights Act, ending segregation in restaurants, libraries, swimming pools, hotels and public schools. American had been challenged to find its better angels, and it responded.

By Vince Bzdek

 |  June 16, 2010; 12:30 PM ET |  Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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