Image: Flags fly at half-staff in honor of Sen. Ted Kennedy at the Capitol building
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
The flag flies at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol Wednesday to honor Sen. Ted Kennedy.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 8/26/2009 3:54:12 PM ET 2009-08-26T19:54:12

Over the next few days there will be plenty of words written and spoken about the legacy of Ted Kennedy.

He is a unique political figure, accomplishing something even presidents have failed to do: He has kept his relevance over decades.

And because of that relevance, everyone has an opinion of Teddy. Everyone.

I'm not going to pretend to be close to the Kennedys. I am not.

But like any political junkie, I've consumed my share of books on all three brothers, and of course I’ve covered plenty of Kennedy stories since diving into the realm of political journalism in the early 90s.

So I begin with the title of this column, taken from Adam Clymer's biography of the senator, written in the late '90s: "From neither perspective was anyone looking at Ted Kennedy as a person. He was just the embodiment of dynasty."

This simple line captures the passion of both political sides of Teddy, from the early '70s through the early '90s. One must remember that in the '70s, Democrats still grasping for Camelot were desperately pinning their hopes on Teddy while Republicans were doing everything they could politically to turn him into a punch line post-Chappaquiddick.

And the idea of Ted Kennedy — rather than the actual man — dominated his political legacy through the early 90s. He was a product of the old ways. He rose in politics by patronage, in this case, by being the brother of the president and the son of a major political donor.

And yet he was a survivor, if not a pioneer of the now common practices of American politics.

The Kennedy family, being well practiced in the old ways of machine politics, were also responsible for making commonplace what we know today as the modern way to run for office, from making presidential primaries significant events (they weren't before 1960), to making commonplace the use of polling as a public relations vehicle.

And while they firmly believed in behind the scenes maneuvering, they also understood the power of the electorate, the power of political persuasion; you didn't have to wait your turn if you could convince the common voter that it was your turn.

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Video: Matthews: Kennedy was 'quarterback on the Hill'

In fact, in hindsight this makes Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton all the more understandable.

The Kennedys didn't believe in waiting their turn behind the scenes. They were taught, by their father among others, to go out and win it themselves if they thought they could. Obama was being told by plenty to wait his turn. Some Democrats probably expected Kennedy to be among those in the establishment to follow that mindset, and yet it would have been rather un-Kennedy of him to support Clinton in 2008.

The legacy
At the moment a bullet pierced the skin of Bobby in June of 1968, Teddy began his 20-year run as a the once-and-future savior of the Democratic Party.

Keep in mind, Kennedy could have had the nomination the easy way, twice – in '68 and again in '72. Plenty in the party were ready to hand it to him, last minute, to "save" the party. There was little confidence by many party elders in Humphrey in '68 and McGovern in '72. Kennedy turned down both chances — and running as the second on the ticket — in both years.

Instead, the one time he ran in 1980 he challenged a sitting Democratic president in a primary — essentially the single hardest thing to do in American politics.

Just ask Ronald Reagan. It's telling the two most influential leaders of both parties in the latter half of the 20th century couldn't pull off the feat of unseating an incumbent president.

If I could invent a game for politics, it would include a dream matchup: liberal lion versus conservative icon, Kennedy versus Reagan. It was the campaign we never got, and many of us would like to have seen.

The embodiment of the Kennedys, according to their detractors at the time, was that their ambition knew no bounds. But then, why did he turn down those two presidential chances?

The decision not to run in '76, just seven years after Chappaquiddick, was understandable. And yet consider how unpopular the Republican Party was that year. If there ever were a time Kennedy could have overcome his personal baggage to ride to the White House it was that year. But again, his career choice demonstrated his ambition was anything but blind.

As a young man in 1962, Kennedy came across as someone in a hurry. And he was. He couldn't ask for the Senate appointment in '61 after his brother was elected president because he wasn't yet 30 years old.

Instead the Kennedys, behind the scenes, orchestrated a caretaker appointment so Teddy could have the option of running. And Kennedy's only tough race for the Senate after his first run was in '94.

But for a man in a hurry, he kept his presidential ambitions remarkably in check. He seemed to embrace the slow ways of the Senate, which gave him his second political life when his quest for the presidency finally ended.

Some will argue that his flawed presidential run in 1980 underscored his secret desire to never actually be president. Perhaps it was an almost Freudian response when he famously flubbed the Roger Mudd interview: He could neither easily articulate why he was running nor could he put to rest the stories swirling around his failed marriage.

Video: Kennedy: ‘This is a season for hope'

Instead, Kennedy seemed to relish his role as a senator. He figured out how to use the perks and to have his own impact.

A lesson in how to survive
Clearly, his personal demons rose up to become political problems.

Yet his handling of each incident framed in the glaring political spotlight became lore. In many ways, it gave birth to the tabloid nature of how politicians are covered today. But it also gave many political consultants a playbook on how to survive, and a reminder that the public is open to redemption if you ask for it and earn it.

Teddy was a pioneer on this front; he was the first major politician to confront a serious personal scandal in the TV age. And he survived. The debate this week will be whether or not he would have survived Chappaquiddick — or the William Kennedy Smith trial — in the digital age.

Kennedy did of course survive the fallout from the latter. But he had to prove himself on the political battlefield in the 1994 campaign against Mitt Romney.

Kennedy's skill in wining that race is rarely appreciated for its degree of difficulty: He had to overcome an anti-Democratic tidal wave, the Kennedy Smith trial, and convince voters he deserved a 6th term in the Senate.

Those who actually win 4th, 5th or even 6th terms become Senate legends, with buildings named after them.

Not just the third brother
It is the '94 race which in many ways allowed Ted Kennedy to become his own man, rather than the "third brother."

He had to reach down and win it on his own. In fact, by defeating Mitt Romney, Kennedy may have written the playbook for Obama in 2012, should Romney end up the GOP nominee.

Kennedy's place as Senate legend is well in hand now. The Lion of the Senate is talked about in the same breath as folks like Daniel Webster.

And while Kennedy was a liberal icon, he was known for his ability to find ways to work with Republicans. Not surprisingly, many have questioned what a difference he would have made in the recent health care debate had he been able to participate. Still to come is how his legacy will be used going forward.

Nor is it known who will replace him — not in his actual Senate seat (although the intrigue will begin soon), but in his role as the man who made the place work.

Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell hold the titles of leader in the Senate. But neither have had the impact yet to forge major compromise nor to wage partisan political fights like Kennedy did. Who is ready to step up?

Video: Biden: ‘It was never about him’ Last year one could argue worthy heirs were Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, but neither are available. It may take a few years for the body to select its next Teddy.

There's no clear replacement, pure and simple.

As one conservative Republican consultant shared with me today, Kennedy's death means the Senate "will be a little less cordial, less dignified, less effective and more partisan."

Kennedy was born the year FDR was elected. He died in the first year of Obama's presidency. Those bookends don’t feel accidental to many Democrats. I find it hard to do justice to the role he played in shaping so much of this country's recent policies, politics, campaigns and yes, its scandals and redemptions. He managed to find dignity in an occupation often demonized.

But in the end, Ted Kennedy was a politician, plain and simple. Yet he embodied how politics and public service can be successfully intertwined. You can't be a good public servant without being a good politician. Kennedy was both.

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Video: Obama: Kennedy was 'defender of a dream'

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