But in the Kennedy pantheon, Ted was the overlooked son, "the runt of the litter," "the baby of the family," the one who never quite rose to the stature of his martyred brothers. Now that the last of the brothers is gone, and just two weeks after the passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, it is finally time to rethink that legacy. John and Robert may have captured the country's imagination, but it has been Ted who most improved people's reality and has been the default patriarch and father figure to his fallen brothers' children. In nearly five decades of behind-the-scenes Senate work, he achieved much, though not all, of his brothers' unfinished dreams. "This is the most consequential legislative career in the country's history," said Thomas Oliphant, who as a correspondent and columnist for the Boston Globe has chronicled Kennedy's career. "It probably had more impact on more people than many presidents. In actual, measurable impact on the lives of tens of millions of working families, the elderly and the needy, Kennedy belongs in the same sentence with Franklin Roosevelt."
The mountain of achievements he has compiled or played a significant part in include the creation of Medicare, the family and medical leave bill, national service legislation, freedom of access to abortion clinics, the lifting of the abortion gag rule and women's health legislation, including fetal tissue research. Ted Kennedy helped create Meals on Wheels for senior citizens. He also has a strong history of gun control efforts—including early support for the Brady bill and opposition to the National Rifle Association dating from 1968.
However, perseverance may well be Ted Kennedy's crowning contribution. He has been the only real constant in the half-century construction of the Kennedy legacy. In stubbornly keeping on, he managed to keep alive something many of JFK's and then Bobby's contemporaries thought died with those men in the 1960s. In other words, he carried the torch when his brothers could not—and the nation needed it most. For 49 years, Ted's guiding purpose was to promote the message of sacrifice, optimism and public service that JFK first lit in 1960.
That perseverance has kept that Kennedy flame burning long and bright enough to bequeath the family legacy to another who inspired millions of Americans much as he and his brothers had done. On January 28, 2008, Ted, his son Patrick and Caroline Kennedy gift-wrapped that political and social legacy—with all its baggage and all its glow—and handed it off not to another Kennedy but to underdog presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was one year old when Ted began his career.