It was 1991, the worst year of Sen. Edward Kennedy's life since Chappaquiddick, 22 years earlier.
With scandal unfolding that spring in Palm Beach, Fla., involving his nephew, the senator was humiliated by tabloid photos that showed him in a nightshirt after their boys' night out, an aging, dissolute playboy.
In the Senate, he was engaged in a difficult struggle over a major civil rights bill. And then, that fall, with accusations of sexual harassment dominating the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, there was the televised spectacle of Ted Kennedy – long a champion of women's rights – sitting mute and powerless, silenced by the Palm Beach case. His approval ratings plummeted.
But 1991, as it turned out, was also one of the best years of Ted Kennedy's life. That was the year he fell in love with Victoria Reggie, the canny, razor-smart, beautiful 37-year-old daughter of old family friends, who was also a top banking lawyer.
Reggie was having her own struggles. Newly divorced from Grier Raclin, a lawyer, she was juggling her demanding career and life as the single mother of two small children. And back home in Crowley, La., her father, Edmund Reggie, a longtime judge and political insider, was facing felony charges of misapplying bank money.
That June, her parents invited Ted Kennedy to a small dinner for their 40th wedding anniversary at Vicki's home in Washington. When the senator showed up alone, Vicki joked in front of everyone: “What's the matter? Couldn't you get a date?”
“My mother, I think, was horrified,” Vicki Kennedy would say later, in an interview with her husband's biographer Adam Clymer: “‘Oh, don't talk to men that way, poor Vicki.'”
The next day Kennedy made what he – and everyone who knew him – would later view as the smartest move of his life. He called to ask Vicki out to dinner.
In recalling the courtship, Vicki Kennedy told Clymer that she had been aware of the senator's low approval ratings, which he had mentioned over dinner one night. They had fallen into the mid-40s.
“And I said, ‘Oh, wow, I've never gone out with anybody whose approval rating wasn't at least 48.'”
The senator proposed to her in January 1992 at a performance of “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York – a love of opera was a passion they shared. They married that July at his home in McLean, Va., in front of about 30 family members.
That was the beginning of the extraordinary relationship – a love story as well as a political partnership – that would define the final years of Kennedy's life, both personally and professionally. It brought him a happiness, his friends said, that had long eluded him, seeing him through until the end, and even after his death, as Vicki Kennedy presided at the first of his public memorials in Boston and prepared for his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I have seen political couples come and go for four decades,” said David Mixner, 63, a writer and civil rights activist who got his start in politics at age 14, when he volunteered for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. “I don't think there has been a partnership and a love story in American politics like this one.”
While no one who knows her would ever describe her as a woman who needed rescuing, her friends say Vicki Kennedy, who had never expected to marry again, was also transformed. She gained a worshipful husband who adored her children, consulted with her on everything from Kennedy family matters to campaign strategy, and made her his partner in a life of politics and public service that she had been introduced to as a girl by her father and that she loved herself.
She revealed what a valuable asset she was during her husband's hard-fought campaign for re-election in 1994 against Mitt Romney, a 47-year-old multimillionaire venture capitalist.
For the first time in decades, Kennedy was contending with a viable Republican opponent. Romney cast the 62-year-old senator as an old, tired, out-of-step liberal.
Vicki Kennedy was instrumental in the campaign's creation of a series of devastating advertisements that challenged Romney's proclamations about his record as a venture capitalist in creating jobs in recession-battered Massachusetts. The spots focused on the workers at the Ampad stationary factory in Marion, Ind., where Romney's company, Bain Capital, had eliminated jobs, reduced wages and discarded the union contract.
Years later, Mixner would observe Vicki Kennedy in action at a 2004 fundraising reception she and the senator had at their home in Washington for the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.
Vicki Kennedy greeted each of the some 300 guests at the front door. “She remembered every single name – and where each person was from,” Mixner recalled recently. “I would just say a name, and then she would greet them, and say just the right thing – ‘Thank you for your work on the environmental community.' I was floored.”
The people at that event, Mixner said, helped elect seven Democratic senators that fall.
And even as she was by Kennedy's side in the last year of his life, helping him navigate the doctors' appointments and medical care, friends say, she was also the one making sure his life was as full as he wanted it to be. That meant time to make calls on health care legislation, to enjoy her cooking, and to sit on the porch with their Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Splash – and the newest addition, as of last winter, Captain Courageous.
On Thursday, dressed in simple black, she was carrying on as his partner, friends say, presiding at his wake in Boston, greeting the tens of thousands of mourners. She stood for hours at the Kennedy library, shaking hands, saying a few words to each person who came through, extending herself, Joe Kennedy said, to Teddy's people as he would have wanted, just as they had planned it, together.
There has been the inevitable talk of Vicki Kennedy running for her husband's vacant Senate seat. But her friends say she has not expressed interest in it.
With her husband gone, “I think she will do exactly what he wanted her to do,” Mixner said, “and continue living life to the fullest – with great sorrow, with a great sense of loss,” but not, he added, “as a victim or as a widow.”