So it's over. The Kennedy era, in which the political consciousness of most of my American generation was born, ends with a lingering illness and quiet mourning, so unlike the violent deaths of Ted Kennedy's elder – and greater – political brothers.
However much the youngest sibling may be lionised in the coming days, it was John and Robert Kennedy whose lives truly electrified American politics and whose assassinations almost certainly precipitated, as Norman Mailer once claimed, a national nervous breakdown. It was that catastrophic psychic blow, Mailer argued, that gave rise to the youth culture of the Sixties, with its bizarre mixture of high idealism and narcissistic pleasure – which, as it happens, was a particularly apt memorial (even if we didn't know it then) for the Kennedy dream. Having lived through that time at Berkeley, where we more or less invented what became the international student revolution, this analysis seems sound to me.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the impact that the presidential campaign, then the election victory, and then the murder, of President Kennedy had on an impressionable new cohort of Americans who were just emerging from the Eisenhower years, and a period of conformist stagnation. (Time magazine had called our immediate predecessors "the silent generation".)
All that hope, all that promise: the Peace Corps, the first official recognition of the goals of the civil rights movement, the truly magnificent rhetoric of the Kennedy speeches (don't let anyone tell you that Barack Obama's speeches are anything like as fine) – and it was extinguished in what was then an unthinkable act.
The shock was literally staggering. I can still, to this day, recall it in all its visceral intensity, as can, I am sure, almost every one of my countrymen who was sentient at the time. When Bobby Kennedy, too, was struck down, there was an almost fatalistic sense of futility. Perhaps it was at that moment that the Sixties movements moved well and truly into their nihilistic phase. For there was still a belief then that these were two quintessentially good men who embodied the best intentions of the United States to live up to its own definition of virtue. That was, of course, before we learned the truth about their private lives.
Ted Kennedy's misadventure at Chappaquiddick is now remembered for its political significance in supposedly ending his presidential ambitions, rather than for the truly horrific fact that a young woman drowned because she was trapped in a car which Kennedy drove off a bridge (and from which he managed to extricate himself). That he was almost certainly technically drunk at the time, which helped to account for his unforgivable delay in reporting the incident, and that the following hours were devoted to a desperate scramble to cover it up, were too much even for a country that was inclined to give any Kennedy the benefit of the doubt.
But at that stage, we still did not know the half of it. Young Teddy was thought to be the weak link, the wild card: the inveterate adulterer and feckless drinker who simply hoped to ride the wave that had been created by his heroic brothers.
But oddly, even after we learned, in quite grotesque detail, of the discrepancy between the private and public morality of the senior Kennedy men – in John Kennedy's case, a compulsive sexual promiscuity that was close to pathological – and of the sordid arrangements that were made to procure hundreds of women for JFK by members of the family itself, the legacy was not utterly destroyed.
It was all so strange and disillusioning that, when the first rumours hit the streets, it was thought to be the product of some politically motivated conspiracy. And some of the details did seem scarcely credible. Even allowing for the energising potential of election victory, could the new president really have had intercourse with nearly half a dozen women other than his wife on the day of his inauguration? Did his brother-in-law, the actor Peter Lawford, really pimp more or less openly for him with the acquiescence of the security services? Was Marilyn Monroe handed back and forth like a parcel between John and Robert Kennedy and did their cavalier treatment contribute to her death? Was the president, John Kennedy, really sharing a mistress with a Mafia boss at the same time as the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, was supposed to be investigating the Mafia?
In the end, there was too much evidence and eye-witness testimony to permit continued denial. America came to terms with the idea that there could be a veritable schizoid split between a person's public morality and his private life: the highest aspirations to civic idealism could reside alongside the most sordid, amoral personal irresponsibility. It is important to note that what John Kennedy apparently engaged in was not discreet or sincerely meant adulterous affairs but what we would now call sexual exploitation: the casual, impersonal use of countless women who were delivered, used, and then discarded with efficient abandon.
Even allowing for the pre-feminist standards of American attitudes to women among his generation of war veterans (this was, after all, the Mad Men era), his habits showed exceptionally brutal cynicism. The sort of personality which is associated with such behaviour may be of clinical psychological interest in itself, but combined with a capacity for apparently genuine belief in the highest standards of civic righteousness and aspiration toward the social good, it should constitute one of the great mysteries of the human condition.
Perhaps surprisingly then, given the national tendency to analyse even quite innocuous things to destruction, America did not become overly preoccupied with the great contradiction at the heart of the Kennedy mythology.
Those who revered the late president and were traumatised by his death, still revere him "in spite of the women", as they would say with a worldly shrug, deciding, after all, that it did not matter that much. Those who disliked him (and there were more of those than the outside world realised, mainly in the South, where they resented his endorsement of the civil rights campaign) loathe him still, taking all the dishonourable evidence as corroboration of their view of him as a corrupting force in American life.
The former, needless to say, tend to be liberal Democrats who decided some time in the Sixties that your behaviour in sexual relationships wasn't a part of morality as properly understood, anyway. A good many truly courageous civil rights workers I knew treated their girlfriends quite abominably: I recall one pregnant girl being abandoned with scarcely a backward glance by a young man who headed down to Mississippi to risk his life registering black voters.
The Kennedy-haters are inclined to be both social and political conservatives who regard his debauched history as a straightforward vindication of their own instincts. But the acceptance won out and it reached its apotheosis with the political survival of Bill Clinton. Once Monica Lewinsky had become the most famous intern in White House history, America's ability to live with the contradiction between public righteousness and private depravity was fully established.
It would have been unthinkable for the United States of the early Sixties to have been so insouciant about John Kennedy's proclivities. Had they been exposed while he was in office, he could certainly not have remained in the White House – which is why presumably the entire establishment connived at keeping them an open secret. But that was then and this is now. The subsequent disclosure of what really went on in the Kennedy ménage made it possible for a later incarnation of that same phenomenon – the politician who wants to improve the world but thinks little of abusing the trust of those closest to him – to be tolerated.
I rather doubt that this would have been the legacy of choice for those whose political idealism was inspired by the young John Kennedy: that he would make the world safe for philanderers.