Even in a family sadly experienced in public mourning, the sight of Victoria Reggie Kennedy standing by her husband’s casket at the John F. Kennedy Library, greeting a seemingly endless number of well wishers, or leading a group of prominent political figures in honoring Ted Kennedy’s memory at a service Friday night, seemed to have special meaning. They were, in a sense, the public affirmation of the role the dark-haired Louisiana lawyer who became Kennedy’s second wife had come to play in his life.
Friends of Kennedy say it was Vicki who rescued him from his famously self-destructive habits when they were married 17 years ago, becoming both confidante, protector and adviser. As Kennedy battled with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, she organized his treatment and managed his time, and after he died she planned how he would be remembered and who would be attending. “It was as if the good Lord had sent her,” former Sen. John Warner, a close friend of Kennedy’s, said in an interview with POLITICO.
Vicki Kennedy played a far more active part in her husband’s career than the wives of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ethel Skakel Kennedy, whose grief over their slain husbands embedded them in the national consciousness. And as a widow she is likely to live a different kind of life — though how she will define it is not clear.
Her very public moments this week left some wondering whether Vicki Kennedy will remain on the national stage, pushing her husband’s issues—including the one he never saw to fruition, health care reform. But it is at least as likely that she will revert back to the life she had before she met Kennedy, this time as a 55-year-old working mother with two grown children, Curran Raclin and Caroline Raclin, now in their twenties.
Kennedy has told friends she isn’t interested in filling her late husband’s Senate seat either temporarily—if state lawmakers revert back to an old system that would allow the governor to fill the vacancy—or in the long-term, by running in a special election. “All this stuff about her going to the Senate is completely wrong,” Bob Shrum, the longtime Kennedy speechwriter and adviser, said in an interview.
But that hasn’t stopped the pundits—and even some Kennedy aides— from chattering about the possibility. Appearing on ABC News on Thursday, Cokie Roberts called Kennedy a “political person” and said she wouldn’t be surprised if she did in fact make a run for the Senate. “She knows politics. She knows substance. It’s normal for someone who’s been that involved to want to stay involved,” Roberts said.
A former longtime Kennedy aide agrees: “She’s the logical choice to keep the seat. She’s a very sharp lawyer, she knows the issues well, and she could carry the torch for Teddy on the health care issue. She would complete his mission.”
But friends say they take Vicki Kennedy at her word. “I believe her when she says she has no interest in public office,” said Pam Covington, a friend of Kennedy’s for close to two decades. “I’ve never heard her even hint at that.
“I don’t know what’s in her heart of hearts that she’s not talking about,” Covington added. “But my guess is that she is happy to carry on Teddy’s legacy in other ways.”
Rep. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat and a longtime Kennedy friend, said he can see Vicki continuing to be an advocate for the passage of health care reform. “It’s something that is central to his legacy and I think that she will work to see that legacy completed,” Markey said.
As many have noted in recent days that legacy was sometimes challenged by issues in Ted Kennedy’s personal life. He divorced his first wife in 1982 and his name quickly became shorthand for comedians’ jokes about politicians behaving badly. In the months leading up to his testimony at the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith, the senator began dating Vicki after she invited him to party celebrating her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. (The two families had been longtime friends: Vicki’s father Edmund, a judge, supported John F. Kennedy for Vice President in 1956 and Vicki’s mother Doris was the only delegate from Louisiana to vote for Ted Kennedy for president in 1980.)
They married in 1992 and Kennedy aides quickly noticed a difference in him. “She brought sunshine to his life,” one longtime aide recalls. “It’s like she opened the shades and lifted his spirits. He suddenly looked healthy.”
During Friday night's ceremony, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Vicki has "been a tremendously wonderful wife to my friend Ted."
"Their marriage in many respects saved Teddy," Hatch continued, adding that their union made him "a better man and a better senator."
Markey and others credit Vicki for helping to win Kennedy’s hard-fought Senate race against Republican Mitt Romney in 1994.
“He obviously loved having her at his side at every event and he turned to her constantly for advice,” Markey said. “She was constantly providing encouragement and advice to him and they became inseparable both personally and professionally.”
While the spotlight was on her husband, Vicki Kennedy took on her own causes, becoming an advocate of children’s safety issues and president and co-founder of “Common Sense about Kids and Guns,” an organization committed to reducing gun violence involving children.
While she’s likely to maintain those interests, it’s unclear whether she intends to resume her legal career. After marrying Kennedy, she left the law firm Keck Mahin & Cate, where she was a partner specializing in banking and restructuring, to focus on her kids—she served on the board at the Maret School, where they were students -- and her husband’s career.
But friends think Vicki Kennedy will return to Washington and resume life in a home she and the senator purchased in the Kalorama neighborhood, far from the Kennedy family’s Massachusetts base, but also outside of the Washington limelight.
"She was not a socialite by any means and they were never part of the Washington social scene,” says Sally Quinn, the Washington hostess and social observer. “He was good at being a pol but not crazy about going to seated dinners. He would often do a 'fly by.'"
"Vicki is very quiet but I don’t see her becoming the grande dame of Washington,” Quinn added. “She was very content being Teddy’s wife and being a mother.”
“I would expect her to be very active in his causes," she said. "I still don’t think she’ll be a major figure in the Washington social scene. She’ll remain much more a quiet figure in Washington.”
Still, she added, "She’ll always be effective at what she does."
That Vicki Kennedy possesses an inner toughness was clear to anyone who came in contact with her during her husband’s illness. News reports have documented one particular squabble between Vicki and Joseph Kennedy II, Kennedy’s nephew, over her husband’s medical treatment.
“It was obvious that there were many demands flying around,” said one longtime family friend. “She became Teddy’s guardian of the gate and that created some tension. To this day, there’s a lot of ice there and some difficulty.”
The friend added that many members of the Kennedy clan including, Caroline Kennedy, were “solidly in Vicki’s corner.”
Even though Ted Kennedy was the “lion” and family patriarch, everyone knew that in the end it was Vicki who would call the shots. “A great reason why he did have as great a year as he did was because of Vicki,” added Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) one of Kennedy’s closest friends, said in an interview. “She gave him a remarkable year.”
She spent her time talking to doctors across the country about the best medical options for her husband, while juggling the cooking, prodding him to finish his memoirs and deciding when the senator was well enough to venture out on his 50 foot-sailboat “Mya” and when he would have to stay in.
Even Dodd, one of his closest confidants, admits, “I never went up to see him without talking to her and I never called him without talking to her.”
And in May when Dodd was coping with his own sister’s battle with cancer, it was Vicki, he says, who called him within hours to say she had scheduled an appointment for her to see Ted Kennedy’s doctor.
While the last year provided challenges for Vicki Kennedy, friends say, it also provided her with clarity.
“As tough as it was, I know the last year provided her with some of the happiest moments of their life together,” Covington said. “Her faith and great optimism not only bolstered him, but it bolstered them.”