The absence of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy last week from the funeral of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, followed by the death on Tuesday morning of columnist Robert Novak, who was diagnosed with brain cancer not long after the lawmaker fell ill from the same cause, has served to remind Americans that the lawmaker’s days, sadly, are numbered. Still, discussion of what is to follow after his passing, politically speaking, has been muted.
That was the case until this morning, when news came that the Senator had sent a message to Massachusetts legislators asking them to reconsider a change in the law they enacted in 2004. At that time, Kennedy’s colleague in the Senate, John Kerry, appeared to have a good chance of attaining the Oval Office. This raised the question of what would happen were he to leave his seat. It was thought by many Democratic bigwigs in the state that Gov. Mitt Romney would appoint a fellow Republican as Kerry’s replacement, if it came to that, to serve until a special election could be called.

Even though no Republican has been elected from the state to the Senate since Edward Brooke was re-elected in 1972, the idea of a member of the GOP joining Ted in the Senate for even a few months was so horrific a prospect to legislators at the Boston statehouse that they enacted a law removing the power to appoint Senators from the governor and specifying that in the event of a Senator’s death or resignation, his or her seat was to remain vacant until it could be filled in a special election within 145 to 160 days – that is, about five months. As for the time in between – well, better, obviously, that Massachusetts be represented by only one person in the world’s greatest deliberative body than that a Republican should take the other seat for an instant.

At the time, neither Kennedy nor Kerry raised any objections to this line of reasoning. But now the senior gentleman from Massachusetts has had second thoughts. His statement informed the Boston lawmakers that, given the likelihood of a razor-thin vote in the Senate regarding health-care legislation, it was imperative that Massachusetts have two members at hand to help decide the issue.

There’s certainly more to this than just health care, however. For fully fifty-six years – over one-fourth of the Senate’s history – one of the two Massachusetts seats has been occupied, with a two-year interruption, by one of two brothers. First, there was John F. Kennedy, from 1953 until he won the Presidency in 1960. He resigned his Senate seat on December 22 of that year, and five days later Benjamin Smith, his Harvard roomate, was appointed to replace him. Smith remained a Senator until Ted Kennedy turned thirty and thus became Constitutionally eligible to be elected. The younger Kennedy won a special election for the seat in November 1962, and immediately after Election Day Smith resigned and Ted took his place.

The start and end of Smith’s tenure were situations where the Kennedy clan felt comfortable with having a Governor make appointments to the Senate, and now Ted seeks to have this power restored to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. So far, the Senator hasn’t specified whether he has anyone in mind to replace him; his wife, Victoria, has let it be known that she does not plan to do so.

But it has been reported that Ted wishes to see another Kennedy reach the Senate, though so far it’s been a difficult wish to fulfill. Regular TNN readers will recall that at the end of last year, when President Obama chose Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the Camelot clan attempted to stir up sentiment for Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg to take her place, resulting in a media frenzy of several weeks before Ms. Schlossberg took herself out of the running after a series of gaffes. A few months ago there was some talk of Robert Kennedy’s son Christopher, the president of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, seeking the Senate seat formerly occupied by Obama, since its present occupant, appointee Roland Burris, has said he will not seek election. But more recently it’s been reported that Christopher Kennedy is eyeing the Illinois governorship.

So speculation, after the Senator’s announcement, has started to focus on former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, his nephew, as his replacement. The younger Kennedy’s career in the House was not especially distinguished and in a contested election, were he not the incumbent, he’d probably find it an uphill battle, not least because of his ham-handed annulment of his first marriage in the early 1990s. But being appointed to the Senate would give him something of an edge when the special election came around.

But even if Joseph II makes it into the Senate, I wouldn’t bet on his seeking a second full term. By 2012, when Ted Kennedy’s term would have expired, he’ll be sixty, and, even in Massachusetts, the electorate probably prefers its Kennedys to be young and charismatic. And, by that time, four or five of the great-grandchildren of Old Joe and Rose Kennedy will be out of law school and ready for high office. (At the present time, only one member of this generation is over thirty – Robert Kennedy’s granddaughter Meaghan Townsend, a yoga instructor in Los Angeles. And just seven or eight are old enough to join their cousin Patrick Kennedy in the House.) In any event, during the next year or so we’ll find out if Camelot is vanishing into the mists of memory or is ready to begin another chapter – assuming the voters want it.