Kennedy's wives stood by him in trying times

During two key elections in his political career, Sen. Edward Kennedy turned to his wife for help. In two cases 30 years apart, his first wife and then his second wife — opposites in personality and strengths — both rallied to his cause.

In 1964, when Kennedy spent months in the hospital recovering from a broken back, it was his first wife, Joan, then 28, who hit the campaign trail to push his re-election to the Senate. Kennedy had won the Massachusetts seat, once held by his older brother John, two years before in a special election.

In 1994, when Ted Kennedy's political career had crested short of the White House and his reputation was tarnished by years of hard living, another woman stood by him. Vicki Kennedy campaigned for the senator in a tough re-election fight against businessman Mitt Romney, in a strong anti-incumbent year.

To Vicki, politics has come so naturally that she has been spoken of as a possible successor to her husband. To Joan, political life came less easily — and at great personal cost.

The Kennedy wife

Ted Kennedy met Joan Bennett in 1957. She was a student of piano, a part-time model, and a college friend of his sister Jean. John Kennedy called her "the dish." Blond and stylish, she joined Ethel and Jackie as Kennedy wives: fashionable, attractive, pitching in on the Kennedy political agenda and publicly ignoring rumors of frequent infidelity on the part of their husbands.

"What she was up against with Ted Kennedy was not easy," says J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. The course of Joan and Ted Kennedy's 24-year marriage included the assassinations of his brothers John and Robert; the bone cancer of their son Edward Jr., then 12 years old; multiple miscarriages; rumors of Ted's philandering; and Joan's battle with alcoholism.

Throughout, Joan was open about her own demons: trying to fit in with the Kennedy clan, fearing for her husband's safety. She went to a psychiatrist when it was taboo in Washington, and admitted it. When she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, she revealed that, too.

"My personality was more shy and retiring," she said in her 1985 biography, Living with the Kennedys: The Joan Kennedy Story. "And so rather than get mad or ask questions concerning the rumors about Ted and his girlfriends, or really stand up for myself at all, it was easier for me to just go and have a few drinks and calm myself down as if I weren't hurt or angry."

Taraborrelli says Joan Kennedy is not to be criticized. "She's a woman to be admired," he says.

Joan had own struggles

In July 1969, on the way home from a party, the senator's car went off a bridge at Chappaquiddick on Martha's Vineyard, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne, a young woman who worked on his brother Robert's presidential campaign. Ted Kennedy, who did not contact the police until more than nine hours afterward, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

It was an incident that irreparably damaged Kennedy's reputation, but in the manner of some political wives, Joan Kennedy stood by him and traveled with her husband to Pennsylvania for Kopechne's funeral. A month later, she suffered her third miscarriage.

When Kennedy ran for president in 1980, he had been separated from Joan for two years. She lived in her own apartment in Boston's Back Bay and studied for a master's degree in education. Nonetheless, she again campaigned for him, though it required answering questions about her alcoholism. She said that if he were elected, she would live with him in the White House. "She put herself out there many times for that family," Taraborrelli says.

The couple's divorce in 1982 was at Joan's request, says Edward Klein, author of Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died. It was "a real effort on her part to establish herself as an independent woman who would no longer be an extension of Ted's life. She tried very, very hard."

Trained as a classical pianist, Joan Kennedy has written a book about music appreciation, performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and promoted music education for children. Her battle with alcoholism has included at least four arrests for drunken driving and time in rehab.

In 2005, when she was 68, her three children went to court to become her legal guardians. Judge Robert Terry ruled that she "was incapable of taking care of herself because of mental illness."

Though she married Ted Kennedy long after the Camelot days, Vicki Reggie appeared made to order for the clan. She comes from a political family in Louisiana with power — her father, Edmund, ran campaigns statewide for all three Kennedy brothers — and a hint of scandal. Edmund Reggie, a judge and a banker, was convicted in 1992 of defrauding a failed savings and loan.

Ted Kennedy and his second wife first met — just for a photo op — when she was an intern in his Senate office. Because of their families' friendship, their paths would cross frequently. The senator had known Edmund Reggie since 1956, when the judge helped swing the Louisiana delegation at the Democratic National Convention to support John Kennedy for vice president over Estes Kefauver. As a delegate to the 1980 Democratic convention, Vicki's mother, Doris, cast the only vote for Ted Kennedy in his failed bid to oust President Carter.

In 1991, then a single mother of two young children, Vicki Reggie was working in Washington as a lawyer specializing in banks and bankruptcy. She invited the senator to a 40th anniversary party for her parents. Shortly after, they began dating, and he proposed at a performance of La Boheme.

A 'constructive force'

Reggie and Kennedy were married in 1992, not long after he had been embroiled in another seriously damaging scandal: the Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith. The senator, who had been with his son, Patrick, and his nephew at the bar where Smith met the alleged victim, was in the house at the time of the alleged rape.

The second marriage began a turnaround for the senator, his biographers say. Both handler and wife, Vicki kept him out of scandal, even making sure he was never photographed with a drink, Klein says.

Vicki Kennedy "came from a political family herself, so she understood politics and had been around politicians. She was able to deal with the social life of politics in a way that made her very effective," says Darrell West, a Brookings Institution fellow who has written a biography of Kennedy's youngest son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. "All the people I know who have met her love her and think she's been a very constructive force in his life."

Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer credits Vicki Kennedy with a key strategic move during the senator's tough Senate race against Romney in 1994. It was Vicki, Clymer says, who with her legal background realized that the Republican's business ties could be used against him. The Kennedy campaign produced an ad featuring laid-off workers in Indiana blaming Romney, then head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm that owned their employer. What was once a tight race became a comfortable win for Kennedy, who was re-elected with 58% of the vote.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said that Vicki played "the role of the Kennedyesque figure — young, beautiful, energetic."

Vicki, now 55, is much like Ted's mother, to whom he was very close, Klein says. "Tough as nails, smart as hell, politically astute, ambitious and ready to do whatever it took to advance Ted's career. Here is finally a woman who could replace his mother in being the guiding force of his life." At the funeral of Rose Kennedy, who died in 1995 at age 104, her youngest child received Communion, an indication he was in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church, which frowns on divorce. After Kennedy's marriage to Vicki, the senator sought an annulment of his first marriage, his biographer Klein says, with the consent of Joan. "She didn't want to stand in the way of him getting remarried and (being able to) go to Mass and all that," he says.

Though Ted credited Vicki with saving his life, the couple always characterized their relationship as simply a love match. "We just met each other at good times in both our lives" she said in a 1992 television interview. "I don't think you can say anyone would make a conscious decision to get married for something other than just being in love and happy; and wanting to spend your life with someone." Did the marriage change his life? "I hope so," she said.

Ted was "really devoted to Vicki," Klein says. It was that happy and productive relationship that allowed him to become the lion of the Senate, Klein says. "I think she's been a very positive force in his life."