Ted Kennedy's Wife Vicki Reggie Tamed Senate's 'Last Lion'

Second wife, who saved Kennedy from a rakish reputation, could run for Senate.

ByRussell Goldman
August 07, 2009, 5:28 PM

Aug. 27, 2009— -- Just a week after surgeons biopsied his brain and diagnosed him with terminal cancer, Sen. Ted Kennedy was at the helm of his beloved yacht Mya last year sailing a stiff southern wind from Nantucket to Hyannisport, his wife Vicki Reggie at his side.

The months that followed that sunny Memorial Day weekend were far stormier, as the health of the eight-term senator slowly deteriorated. Through those difficult days, Vicki served not just as a trusted first mate, but as a vigilant steward of his health, a protector of his privacy and a guardian of his legacy.

That picture of Kennedy surrounded by his friends and family at the 2008 Figawi regatta is remarkable not just as a tableau of persistence in the face of adversity, but as a snapshot of how Kennedy would want to be remembered -- hale and vigorous, captain of his family and his fate.

Watch ABC News' special "Remembering Ted Kennedy."

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As Kennedy is laid to rest, it's a scrubbed version of his biography with which he is being eulogized. Remembered as a stalwart liberal, master of the Senate and standard bearer of his brothers' New Frontier, the obituaries could not ignore the scandals about booze and womanizing over the decades.

If anyone deserves credit for Kennedy's transition from scandal-maker to statesman it's the man himself. But it was Vicki, confidants say, who tamed the "last lion of the Senate," recast her husband's legacy, and has kept -- at least for now -- the remaining walls of Camelot from crumbling into oblivion.

Her loyalty to her husband and to his ideals has made Vicki, a former lawyer who has never held public office, the leading contender for Kennedy's Senate seat.

Since their marriage in 1992, Kennedy experienced the least profligate and most productive period of his career, spearheading Senate battles on education and health care. Following his diagnosis, confidants say, Vicki's role expanded as she became the chief gatekeeper of his schedule, balancing meetings with doctors about his health and meetings with legislators about health care.

"She looked after his health and managed his time," said Susan Milligan, co-author of "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy" and an ABC News consultant who covered Kennedy for years as a Boston Globe reporter on Capitol Hill. "He would be out on that boat and having meetings on health care at all hours of the night if she'd let him get away with it. She put the brakes on, kept him in line, forced him to stick to a regimen."

Ted Kennedy's Marriage

In the aftermath of his first marriage to Joan Bennett Kennedy in 1981, reportedly marked by his infidelity and her alcoholism, Kennedy spent nearly a decade as a bachelor, which only augmented his reputation as a hard-partying rake.

More than 20 years his junior, friends were initially skeptical of the relationship that blossomed between Kennedy and Vicki, a divorcee and the daughter of an old friend and political ally from Louisiana.

Marrying in the wake of his nephew's rape trial -- the lowest point in Kennedy's very public private life since Chappaquiddick -- and after a decade of rakish bachelorhood and embarrassing headlines, some inside the beltway saw Kennedy's choice to settle down in 1992 as a political move, a marriage of convenience.

"If all he wanted was to get married and convince people that he was settling down, he could have picked someone who looked the other way when he caroused," said Milligan. "Instead, he picked someone who was very much his intellectual equal. People like to think she tamed him, but he picked her for a reason."

Just a few years before the trial, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy tore into then-Republican nominee George H.W. Bush in a scathing speech that repeated the refrain "Where was George?"

"I'll tell Teddy Kennedy where George is," retorted Harold Rogers, a Republican congressman from Kentucky. "He's home sober with his wife."

In 1989, the National Enquirer printed photos of Kennedy on a boat, very different from the images of the senator and his family snapped during the Figawi race.

Snapped by a paparazzo, Kennedy was caught having sexual intercourse on a motorboat during a European vacation.

In time, however, even the most hard-hearted cynics in Washington were won over by the romance that grew between Kennedy and Vicki. Since their courtship began in 1991, stories shared at beltway dinner parties about Kennedy's carousing were replaced with talk of Kennedy's reinvention as an avuncular, family man, an Uncle Teddy to the whole country.

Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's Love

"Since Vicki Reggie became Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy became a happy man. He had gone through a very troubled period and that just ended" when they met, said ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts.

"She created a home for him and made a place where family could come and friends could come that was his place," Roberts said.

Vicki Kennedy, 55, still retains her southern accent and her southern charms. Following Kennedy's diagnosis, she sent hundreds of thank-you notes in response to the torrent of letters wishing the senator well.

She left her job as a bank regulatory and loan restructuring attorney in 1997 to focus on her family and avoid conflicts with Kennedy's political work, and quickly achieved a reputation on Capitol Hill as a relaxed and fun-loving political wife who often opened her home to parties.

In 1999 she founded a gun violence organization that advocates for child victims.

"It's disarming how very normal she is. She puts you at ease," said Milligan. "Of all the senators' spouses, she's the most approachable. She is very protective of her husband, but also doesn't mind making fun of him."

A mother of two, Vicki and her first husband divorced in 1990, some eight years after Kennedy divorced his first wife, Joan.

In 1991, Vicki and Kennedy began their relationship after she invited him to a 40th anniversary party in Washington she threw for her parents, but they had actually met once before years earlier. The summer after she graduated from college, she interned in the mailroom of Kennedy's Senate office, meeting her future husband just once.

Her father, Edmund Reggie, a former judge from Crowley, La., managed the Louisiana presidential campaigns for John F., Robert and Ted Kennedy.

In 1992, the senator proposed at a performance of the opera "La Boehme," and the couple married in July just in time for the Democratic National Convention held that year in New York.

Vicki Kennedy Possibly May Run to Fill Senate Seat

Kennedy has retained his seat in the Senate since 1962, and a special election will soon be held to fill it. Many have speculated that Kennedy wanted his wife to replace him, and that she wants the seat.

So large a family has its many factions, each of which has a family member they believe should run for the seat in the upcoming special election.

"Vicki Reggie is a political person and it would not surprise me if she decided to run for the Senate," said Roberts. "She know politics, she knows substance. It's normal for someone who's been that involved to want to stay involved."

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