Ten years after the loss of Ted Kennedy, Vicki Kennedy remembers her late husband and his legacy.
Vicki Reggie Kennedy is the daughter of Doris Reggie and the late Judge Edmund Reggie. Best known as the wife of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, Vicki Kennedy was widely credited with being a stabilizing force in the life of her husband and was at his side during his most fruitful and productive years. Kennedy herself was an accomplished student, a respected lawyer and a person who to this day advocates for the legacy of her late husband. As the co-founder and the president of the board of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, Kennedy’s passion is to use the institute to improve civil discourse in the United States through a unique facility next to the John F. Kennedy Library that allows students to experience life as a legislator. N Magazine sat down with Vicki Kennedy on the tenth anniversary of her husband’s passing to discuss the meaning of his legacy and her own personal journey.
KENNEDY: Nantucket’s very special to me. It’s special to my whole family. I’ve come to Nantucket since the early 1980s. My parents bought a place here in 1982 so my kids really grew up here. They were here from their youngest years. So this is in the blood, in the soul, in the mind of my whole family.
N MAGAZINE: What are some of your passions on the island?
KENNEDY: I love to sail. I have a little sailboat that Teddy gave me years ago, I guess it’s almost twenty years ago now. It’s named La Bohème because he proposed to me at the opera La Bohème. I love to cook. I love to read. I love to have friends, be with friends. You know, I’m just a regular old person that loves to be on my sailboat.
N MAGAZINE: You’re very close with your family, especially your mother. Can you explain your relationship with her and her role in your life on Nantucket?
KENNEDY: I was very close to my parents growing up. After my husband died, I came back to Nantucket because I wanted to be closer to both of my parents. I’m really happy that I did. My dad passed away in 2013 and my mom continues to stay here. We’ve got a lot of great friends here. I spend a lot of time with her, which is terrific. But from the time I was a little girl, she and I have been very bonded, very connected. When I was little, I would do everything that she did. We’d be in church and she’d cross her legs and I’d cross my legs and she’d fold her hands and I’d fold my hands. I think that that same sentiment is probably still true. I’d love to be my mother. She is one of the most positive, optimistic people that I know. She’s friendly, she’s outgoing—she’s just a warm, embracing, welcoming human being.
KENNEDY: I don’t know. I guess that’s for others to decide. I liked school.
N MAGAZINE: Your father was a judge. Did that draw you to law school?
KENNEDY: No, actually it was a mentorship of a professor. It didn’t dawn on me, which sounds very strange, that I should go to law school. I was an English major, so I thought I would go to graduate school in English. And I had a professor who, when I asked if he would write a recommendation for me to go to graduate school, said, “No.” And I was shocked. I was absolutely stunned. And I asked why. And he said, “Because I think you should go to law school.” Then he said, “Have you ever heard of Carla Hills? She is only the third woman ever to be in a president’s cabinet … Women can do anything.”
Here’s this 18th-century British literature professor who really was transformative. So I called my mother and I said, “Mom, you know, professor Taplin thinks I should go to law school.” She said, “That’s fantastic.” I asked, “Do you think that’s a good idea?” She said, “I think it’s a fabulous idea.” She was so in my corner. Then I asked, “Do you think Dad will think it’s a good idea?” It was just hard to imagine that this was my mentality at the time. And she said, “Oh, I think he’ll think it’s a great idea.” And, of course, he did.
N MAGAZINE: Prior to your marriage to Ted, had politics ever entered your mind as a career?
KENNEDY: Not as a career, but as an interest. I grew up surrounded by politics. One of my earliest memories is being a little girl listening to the radio and writing down election returns for President Kennedy’s election.
KENNEDY: Yes, it was filled with political personalities. It was filled with political discussions and conversation about current events. I would say the big influences were just my family because they believed in being involved, and political involvement was one way of being involved. It was my dad’s active involvement in the life of our community. It was my mother and my grandmother who believed in service and giving back.
N MAGAZINE: So it’s in your DNA?
KENNEDY: It’s in my DNA. It’s how I was brought up.
N MAGAZINE: So I assume when you married perhaps one of the most prominent senators in American history, the transition was not abrupt for you?
KENNEDY: Interestingly, we never talked politics when we were dating. It was about us. It was about getting to know each other. It was about our stories. It was about our family history. It was about our hopes and dreams. It was an old-fashioned sort of getting to know each other in a human way. It wasn’t business. I don’t know how else to explain it. It just wasn’t business.
KENNEDY: It obviously evolved. I mean, politics was part of his life and then it was part of my life. I got increasingly more involved. He had a very competitive Senate race and I was very involved in campaigning and in meetings. Then, that all just sort of evolved and I got more and more involved, and he asked me to be more and more involved.
N MAGAZINE: Did you often disagree?
KENNEDY: No, but we would have discussions. We didn’t disagree at all. One of the great things, one of the many great things about Teddy is he loved to listen. He loved to receive ideas. He loved to get different points of view and to put them in his brain and digest them all. He didn’t always agree with the end result, but it wasn’t disagreeable.
N MAGAZINE: So just talking about his strengths for a moment, what is the message of Ted Kennedy’s life?
KENNEDY: I think it’s perseverance and having the courage of your convictions. I think it’s believing in something and never giving up and fighting for it. It was never about him. It was always a higher purpose. I think part of that was his deep religious faith. He believed in the promise of America, as he always said. He believed in America’s march for progress. He believed that the better days were always ahead, and that we had an obligation to continue to fight for a more perfect union. That was sort of like his driving principle. He didn’t get discouraged. Very rarely did I ever see him down. It was always the long view. He was an optimist. He didn’t look for bad motivations in people ever. He didn’t assume bad motivations. He just had a goal, and he just kept fighting toward it. Perseverance.
KENNEDY: The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is a place in Boston on Columbia Point for people to come experience democracy and to learn about the U.S. Senate. It’s the touchstone to understanding about our government and how it works. We have a full-scale replica of the U.S. Senate chamber. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s something that Teddy envisioned going back to the early 2000s.
He wanted people to understand the Senate, so that they would love it, I think, as much as he did—which may not be humanly possible. He wanted people to be engaged and to understand the magic that happened when both sides worked together and addressed the great challenges facing our nation and to understand that we as citizens had a role in making things happen for our country. And he hoped that we’d inspire civic engagement and inspire a new generation of leaders for our country. That’s the global, big idea of it. So then our job was to take that very big idea and try to make it into something that was tangible and that could really work. That’s what we did, I think, quite successfully.
N MAGAZINE: We arguably are at a point where we’re in the least civil period in American politics perhaps since the Civil War. When you read about the goals of the institute, it talks about encouraging civility and constructive interactions. How do you teach that?
KENNEDY: Experientially. It’s nothing that you can preach. You could preach till the cows came home and say, “OK, be civil.” That doesn’t get you anywhere. We have people come in and put themselves in the shoes of other people. For example, one of our programs is called the Senate Immersion Module. We worked on it with video game experts to make it fast-paced and lively. We did beta testing in classrooms around the country. Young people are assigned a Senate seat, a state and a party. They’re told what party they’re in, what their party believes and what their constituents believe. They have to reconcile that with whatever their own beliefs might be. And then they’re given a piece of legislation and they’ve got to negotiate. They’ve got an adopted amendment; they’ve got to get it passed.
So let’s say it’s the Farm Bill. They’ve got to put themselves in the shoes of someone from a Midwestern farm state. Here you may be a Massachusetts student who may have had a certain point of view, but now you’re an Iowa Republican who has the pressures of your constituents, and you’ve got to now compromise. And then you learn that compromise isn’t a bad word. You will not get anything done unless you find common ground. Congress means coming together. So how do you get that done? They have to figure out a way without compromising their values that they can find that little nugget of common ground. They do it by working together.
When you start to do that, they start to say, “Gosh, I never thought about what it was like to put myself into somebody else’s shoes. I never knew that these were the pressures that those people felt.” Teachers tell us that [the students] get back on the bus going back to school, and all they want to do is talk about what just happened because they’re so excited about it. We had a waiting list this past year of eighty-plus schools trying to get in to do the simulated center.
N MAGAZINE: Are they from all over the country?
KENNEDY: Primarily New England right now, but we have them coming from all over the country. Because of the reputation that we’ve been able to garner, and because we’ve gotten the attention of foundations and others, we now are able to start looking at expanding it even beyond. We have a smaller program called Today’s Vote, which we’re working on right now with a foundation to expand into classrooms around the country. Students stand up and debate spontaneously with regular visitors coming in. So we’re working on that and it’s pretty doggone exciting.
KENNEDY: I’m absolutely optimistic. You can’t walk into the Kennedy Institute and see these young people participating, being hopeful and caring, and not believe that we have a generation that is eager for change. At the same time, I think that there’s an urgency that we can’t lose sight of.
I’m not Pollyanna. I’m optimistic, but I’m not Pollyanna. I think we’re in an incredibly serious time and I think our institutions are under attack and undermined in a very serious way. I don’t think that there’s any citizen who should be relaxed or sanguine and think somebody else is going to solve the problem. It’s time for every single person to be active and to do something about it and to be involved and to vote and to not wait for somebody else to do it.
N MAGAZINE: When Ted passed away, there was a great deal of talk about you stepping in. Was that a serious consideration at some point? Is that something you had to wrestle with?
KENNEDY: I felt really strongly that there was always one Senator Kennedy and it was him. I knew that there were people who were urging me to run, but it wasn’t where my heart was. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. So sometimes the saying “no” is also kind of a big decision. It’s not so easy to tell people no when you feel like you’re disappointing them, but I knew what was not in my heart. That was his life.
N MAGAZINE: It has been ten years since Teddy’s passing. He is clearly not forgotten and has a legendary status in American history. What is your hope of the lessons of Ted Kennedy as it relates to where we’re going and the future of the country?
KENNEDY: I hope that people will look at him and know that standing up, speaking out, being fearless in the face of even a chorus of people on the other side is the thing to do. He was fearless. He did stand up. He was not concerned about what people might think. He wasn’t worried about a popularity contest.
I’ll tell you a story that says more to me about who he was than anything. In the early nineties, he had a very difficult race against Mitt Romney. It was certainly the most competitive race he had had since he first ran in the sixties. And after Labor Day, we were in one of these intense meetings with advisors. They said, “The race is tight, neck and neck, so one of the things we think you need to do is to sign on to this welfare bill. This will show that you really have evolved and you’re this new Democrat.”
All the people in the room were saying, “Yes, yes, this is what you need to do. You’re the man of the future. You need to sign on to this new welfare bill.” Then there was a silence in the room and Teddy said, “I haven’t been in the Senate this long to have to win on the backs of poor women and children. I’m not doing that. What’s your next issue?” And that was it. That was who he was. Because it wasn’t what he believed, he was not doing it even if it meant he was going to lose the U.S. Senate. I just don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of him. That’s who he was with every single thing he did.
Hair & Makeup by Emily Denny of Emily Nantucket.