It is Saturday, May 17, and Edward "Ted" Kennedy is nowhere to be seen. The guests at the family estate in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod are at a loss, not quite sure whether the party can begin without him. They include Tom Brady, star football player for the New England Patriots and boyfriend of supermodel Giselle Bündchen, the former world record sprinter Carl Lewis and a few important sponsors of the Kennedys. The appetizer, mozzarella with yellow and red cherry tomatoes, has already been set out on the buffet tables. The guests could start eating, but there is no one there to greet them.
The party was intended as the high point of a weekend dedicated to Best Buddies, a charity organization run by Ted's nephew, Anthony Kennedy Shriver. But, as has so often been the case, it was much more than that. It became a family festival, complete with a reception at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, a 20-mile bicycle race on Cape Cod and a lobster dinner for 1,200 Kennedy supporters on the beach at Hyannis. The Kennedys still see themselves as America's first family.
The guests realized what was wrong when they looked at their Blackberrys and saw the breaking news report from CNN. Ted Kennedy had suffered a seizure shortly after getting up that morning and, after being checked out by doctors at the local hospital on Cape Cod, he was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. At this point, no one knows what is wrong with Kennedy, but his emergency room visit alone is enough to fuel the worst speculations. Wasn't he, only recently, more full of life than ever? Hadn't he discovered his enthusiasm for Obama only a few months earlier, even anointing Obama as the next Kennedy? Wasn't this a new beginning? And now Ted Kennedy was dying?
Anthony Kennedy Shriver is the first Kennedy to appear after the CNN report. He is the senator's second-youngest nephew, a successful philanthropist who founded the precursor organization to Best Buddies in 1987, when he was still a student, and has since expanded it into an international aid organization for people with intellectual disabilities, with offices in 37 countries, including Germany. At about 1 p.m., he arrives at the Kennedy compound wearing cycling gear, after participating in the 20-mile Best Buddies race on Cape Cod. He hasn't even showered yet, but he has to say something. The guests want to know how Ted Kennedy is doing.
Shriver gathers the guests together in front of a small podium in the tent, while the Kennedys outside block off the street that provides a view into the compound. Television crews from Boston are on their way to Hyannis Port, because the stations are beginning to air special programming about Ted Kennedy.
Shriver says what he has to say, a few words about Best Buddies, about the day and the celebration, about the $3 million in donations he expects to collect this weekend, and then he gets to the point: "Uncle Teddy is in the hospital in Boston. Everything is under control. We expect him to make a full recovery."
His words come as a relief at this moment, when no one knows exactly what to say, at least salvaging the party and the rest of the weekend. Perhaps this is what distinguishes the Kennedys from other families and has made them so successful for decades: that they are used to tragedies and do not even allow sickness and death to dampen their spirits. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Kennedy Legacy Lost for Good?
They have been through many tragedies. In 1944 Joseph, Ted's oldest brother and the first presidential hope, died in a bombing mission over the English Channel. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, and five years later, in 1968, his brother Robert was assassinated after the California primary. In 1969 Ted, the last surviving brother, drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. He managed to save himself, but his passenger, campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. He was later convicted of fleeing the scene of an accident. The accident effectively dashed any hope of another president emerging from his generation of Kennedys.
The next generation also soon lost its greatest hopes, and it seemed as if the great Kennedy legacy had been lost once and for all. In 1973, Ted's son Edward lost a leg to cancer. In 1984, Robert Kennedy's son David died of a drug overdose in Florida. In 1997, his brother Michael died in a skiing accident in Aspen. And in 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., the secret crown prince at the time, died in a plane crash, together with his wife Carolyn and her sister.
But death was never simply an end for the Kennedys, but also a beginning. In fact, death was what made the Kennedy myth possible in the first place. The Kennedys have always taken things to extremes, always stoically choosing the most difficult approach. "It was," as John F. Kennedy once said, "a chain reaction that my brother Joseph started and that eventually reached me and all of my brothers and sisters." Each sibling felt compelled to surpass the heroic actions of the others.
Three days after Ted Kennedy collapsed on Cape Cod, the Kennedys announce the diagnosis, and the world learns that Ted, the last survivor of the four presidential brothers, is seriously ill. He has a glioma, a tumor that is fatal within 15 months in half of all cases. Within the first few hours, 19 flower bouquets and more than 2,500 e-mails arrived at the senator's office. King Abdullah II of Jordan sent an orchid, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote a get well card, and there were messages from actors Glenn Close and Martin Sheen, former First Lady Nancy Reagan and former Vice President Al Gore. In the Senate, Senator Robert Byrd broke out in tears, saying: " Ted. My dear friend. I love you and miss you."
Byrd's words reflect the return of an old feeling, a memory of the idealism of the early Kennedy years, but also respect and admiration for a 76-year-old man who, since the Chappaquiddick accident, has spent close to four decades diligently and reliably making amends, for himself and for his clan. Kennedy has had the same job, Senator for Massachusetts, his father's state, for almost 46 years. In August 2007, when he celebrated his 15,000th vote in the Senate, he was able to say that he had sponsored more than 2,500 pieces of legislation. Time wrote that in all of his years in the Senate, Kennedy "amassed a titanic record of legislation."
This, too, helps to explain the wave of sympathy for the Kennedys throughout the United States, and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is using every opportunity to portray himself as a friend of the family. When Obama heard that Ted Kennedy had to cancel an address at Wesleyan College, he took his place. When he was searching for a suitable location for his first speech in Europe, he chose Berlin, where John F. Kennedy gave his famous "I am a Berliner" speech in June 1963. And when it came time to selecting a special site for his nomination speech at next week's Democratic Convention in Denver, he chose the enormous Invesco Field, the Denver Broncos' home stadium, because JFK also gave his nomination speech, in 1960, in a football stadium.
Following the Kennedy Script is Risky
This suits the zeitgeist, for which Obama already showed a keen sense when, in February 2007, he flew to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to give his first campaign speech at the John F. Kennedy High School there. It seemed presumptuous at the time, even a little coquettish, but then, in late January 2008, Ted Kennedy anointed Obama as his political heir. "He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past," the senator said. "He has the power to inspire and make America good again." JFK's daughter Caroline, who was standing next to him, said that she had waited half her life for a man who was so much like her father.
And now Caroline Kennedy is part of a team leading the search for Obama's vice-presidential candidate. The last surviving child of JFK, many Americans remember Caroline as a little girl who liked to ride her pony and was the inspiration for Neil Diamond's major hit "Sweet Caroline." For Obama, Caroline Kennedy is the "link to a purer, more buoyant political age," writes Michelle Cottle in the New Republic.
The expectations Obama raises are high, because it is their great deeds that America associates with the Kennedys. The darker sides of the JFK presidency are now largely forgotten, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco, his sexual dalliances and rumored mafia connections. Instead, Kennedy has become a mythical hero.
Obama inspires crowds, and yet, three months before the election, his lead over rival John McCain has been surprisingly slim. Despite the media's enthusiasm for Obama, and despite Americans' strong desire change, he leads in most opinion polls by only three to six percentage points and a new poll this week put him behind McCain for the first time. He is playing with high stakes, by following the Kennedy script and laying an historic claim to be leading America into a new era. This strategy could secure victory for Obama, but it could also cost him the election. Americans love theater, but not when it borders on arrogance.
Lacking His Brothers' Sparkle
When Obama travels to his party's nominating convention in Denver in late August, Ted Kennedy will not be absent. He is unlikely to be there in person -- he is too sick for that -- but he will appear on a screen, looking larger than life. He is already working on a five-minute video, which could become something of a bequest, perhaps even a farewell speech to the nation.
It was no easy inheritance that Ted Kennedy and the Democrats accepted 40 years ago. After his brother Robert's death in 1968, Ted was the highest-ranking Kennedy. He had always had many friends among Democrats and Republicans, more so than most of his colleagues, but he lacked his brothers' sparkle. He became old in a family that embodied youthfulness.
For many years, things were not going well for the Kennedys. Ted's brothers had given people hope that they could improve the world, but the murders of both Kennedys, and that of Martin Luther King, plunged the nation, four decades ago, into self-doubt and a long struggle with itself. It was no longer a time for which the Kennedys were suited.
Other families gained influence, most of all the Bushs and the Clintons. Of the 40 years that have passed since the assassination of Robert Kennedy, they have, alternately, served 28 in the White House. George H.W. Bush spent 12 years there, first as Ronald Reagan's vice-president and then as president. He was followed by Bill Clinton, who served for eight years, and then by George W. Bush, for another eight years. If Hillary Clinton had won the primaries against Barack Obama, the nation might have seen a Clinton in office for another eight years. By comparison, the Kennedys were in the White House for all of three years, and among JFK's nephews and nieces there was no one who stood a chance of being elected president.
Nevertheless, many of them ran for political office, though often unsuccessfully. Matthew Maxwell Kennedy and Mark Shriver ran for Congress, but they were just as unsuccessful as Christopher Kennedy's bid for the post of lieutenant governor in Illinois. Some did manage to get into politics, including Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who became the lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, who still represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives today. But whenever they became interested in higher political offices, they failed. The family seemed distraught. The great name had become a burden. The Boston Globe, Kennedy's home paper, eventually wrote: "The country is pretty plainly tired of the Kennedys."
Hardly any of the surviving Kennedys led a normal life. Drugs, alcohol and sex became the daily lapses of the next generation. Of the 16 male heirs left after the murders of John F. and Robert Kennedy, at least seven had drug or alcohol problems, two were charged with rape and three died violent deaths, partly as a result of their personal crises.
Bobby Shriver, however, is sitting in his office on Arizona Avenue, 10 blocks from the beach, in an attractive, brick-red hacienda in downtown Santa Monica. He too has had his personal crises, and he too has been caught with drugs, but now Shriver -- the eldest son of JFK's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver -- is one of the most successful Kennedys of his generation. He is one of the few Kennedys who has earned his own millions, as an investment banker working with James Wolfensohn, who would later become the head of the World Bank.
From his office in Santa Monica, Shriver now collects money for Africa. He manages the Product Red label, a seal of philanthropy. Many companies participate in the program, including Armani, Converse, Gap and American Express. The companies sell red products -- red watches, red T-shirts, red shoes, red credit cards -- with the word RED written on them. Half of the proceeds from the sale of these products go to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. More then $100 million (€65 million) have been raised since 2006. "We are like the Olympic Committee," says Shriver. "People can use our logo, but we decide what works and what doesn't."
It was Bono's idea. The U2 rock star wanted to force the industrialized nations to forgive the debts of Africa's poorest countries, and Bono thought that if he could gain the Kennedys' support for his project, he would also be able to convince the American public. "So Bono called my mother," says Shriver. "He asked her if Ted could help him, but my mother told him no, that's nothing for Teddy, let Bobby do it. And so Bono called me and I said, okay, I'll take a look at it."
A Merciless, Darwinist Youth
The Kennedys sense their opportunity. Bobby and the rest of his clan, a large and self-confident family, are eager for political office. There are many rumors about their possible prospects, including Maria Shriver, the daughter of Eunice Kennedy and the wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, assuming Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, Bobby Kennedy Jr. finally becoming the Secretary of the Interior, and Caroline Kennedy, who is helping Obama search for a vice-presidential candidate, being named the vice-presidential candidate herself. Obama could also bring in Schwarzenegger, California's governor and the only Republican in the Kennedy clan, as his energy czar.
The high expectations that often led to the failure of many Kennedys have also helped the survivors stage a comeback. Even in difficult times, they have never been lazy, and their internal competition has consistently driven them to new achievements. "I always had the feel that I had to fight to keep up," says Bobby Shriver. "Beating other people in sports didn't count. You had to beat a brother or a cousin who was your age. Am I a better tennis player than Bobby Kennedy? Okay, that's great. Then I can relax."
Shriver's mother had high expectations of him as a child, even in his free time. "When we were on the way home from school, she would say, okay, let's race from here to the flagpole," says Shriver. "Any normal mother would have let her child win, but my mother ran off and won the race."
It was a merciless, Darwinist youth, worlds away from Barack Obama's. Obama grew up in Hawaii, far away from the race riots, from the confusion over the murdered Kennedys that divided America. None of this mattered much to him, living on an island where it seemed to him "as if nature, tired of war and aggression, had dropped these green rocks into the ocean so that they could be settled by pioneers from around the world and their sunburned children."
The Kennedys have written history by putting one of their own in the Oval Office. And Obama is supposed to be their heir apparent? Barack Obama, whose career in national politics began only four years ago? His claim to fame is a single speech, which he gave at the Democratic Convention in July 2004. It was undoubtedly a great speech. But are speeches enough?
When Obama embarked on his celebrated European tour, his opponent, John McCain, likened him to tabloid celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Obama, McCain said, "would rather lose a war than lose an election." In McCain campaign ads, Obama was depicted as a superstar, and McCain's campaign staff sarcastically referred to him as "The One," aloof, narcissistic and arrogant. "Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand "MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and worry about the price of arugula."
"We became hardened," says Bobby Shriver. "And outside in the 'non-hardened world,' this is sometimes hard to understand."
The telephone rings. His closest advisors are on the line: a mayor, a local elected official and a business expert. Shriver, a member of the city council in Santa Monica, talks about new smoking laws and the homeless on Santa Monica beach. And then one of them says to him: "Hey Bobby, your cousin Caroline is picking the next vice president of the United States. Doesn't that mean that everything will get better?"
Bobby Shriver combs his hand through his hair, the way he always does when he feels good about something he is doing. He is the leader once again, the leader he once was when the Shrivers and the Kennedys would compete in football and tennis, believing that they were their own best challengers.
"Naturally," says Bobby Shriver, "I called Caroline and told that she should think carefully about who she picks for vice president. And I also told her: Before she asks my little brother, it's my turn."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan