Everyone will have their own memories and views, of course: here is a great one by Charles Pierce from 2003. I suppose for me, one thing that stands out about Ted Kennedy was that he could find his true calling once he had finally put away what everyone else told him he “should” do, i.e. become President of the United States. Maybe he realized by the early 80’s that he could not win, but my limited experience with politicians is that they never realize this, and need a crushing defeat to have it drilled into them. At the Presidential level, Kennedy never had that: he came close to unseating a sitting President, who then went on to a crushing defeat himself. Kennedy was the logical nominee afterwards.
But maybe once he had (finally) run, he didn’t really want to run anymore. He just wanted to be a Senator — hardly a modest ambition for most people, but practically self-effacing for a Kennedy. He didn’t want to be the hero and symbol and hope of the country — he just wanted to help working people and the less fortunate.
And he did. Others will state the record better than I can, but in the 1990’s, he was responsible for among other things, the ADA, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, health care portability, several minimum wage increases, etc. etc. This during a time, during the Gingrich Dark Ages, when it was difficult to get anything progressive done. By finally giving up what everyone else wanted for him, Kennedy could do what he wanted for himself and for others.
There is a great story from Evan Thomas’ fine biography of Robert Kennedy that is telling. It is some time in 1965, and Ted and Bobby are sitting on the floor of the Senate, listening to someone drone on and on. Though younger, Ted had seniority over his older brother, who was a freshman. Bobby, who was never patient and never really liked legislatures, finally leaned over to Ted and said, “Do we really have to sit here and listen to this?”
“Yes,” said Ted. “We do.”
Rest in peace.