Ted Kennedy's Circle Upset by Caroline's Awkward Exit

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Senator Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy in August 2008

Of all the many ways in which Caroline Kennedy's brief and unofficial candidacy for the U.S. Senate was mishandled, one final ungraceful note is striking particularly close to home. Sources close to Senator Edward M. Kennedy tell TIME that his circle is furious that his brain cancer has been cited by some in her camp as the reason for her decision to withdraw her name from consideration for the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton in New York.

"It looks horrible," says a former aide to Ted Kennedy. "It makes him look like he is at death's door." In fact, those close to Kennedy, 76, say that while the Senator is suffering occasional seizures, like the one that sent him to a hospital on Tuesday during the celebratory Capitol lunch for the newly inaugurated President, he is generally doing well. And they add that Kennedy is fully engaged in the effort to pass universal health-care legislation — a cause for which he has fought for decades, and one in which he will play a crucial role as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (See pictures of Obama's Inauguration.)

"He is crazy about her. He encouraged her" in her bid for the Senate seat, one close associate says of Ted Kennedy's relationship with his niece. "But using him as an excuse, as though things were on the downward spiral, is not going to be O.K. with him ... This will get in the way of health reform" — by suggesting that a key legislator involved in putting the bill together may be incapacitated.

The first reports that Caroline Kennedy had withdrawn her name came early Wednesday evening, and they touched off a frenzied effort by her camp to deny it. Her terse statement, issued shortly after midnight, cited unspecified "personal reasons" for her decision to notify New York Governor David Paterson that she no longer wanted to be considered for the post.

Multiple reports suggested that those around her — and possibly Caroline Kennedy herself — were citing her uncle's condition as a reason, despite the fact that his illness and prognosis has been known for months. The New York Times, for instance, wrote in its Thursday morning edition: "The person who spoke with Ms. Kennedy said she cited concerns about the health of her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who suffers from brain cancer and was hospitalized after a seizure Tuesday, as the reason for her abrupt withdrawal." (See Ted Kennedy on the cover of TIME in 1971.)

Those reports were not denied until shortly after TIME.com initially reported that Senator Kennedy's inner circle was angry at his health being used as a justification for her withdrawal. "It has nothing to do with Senator Kennedy," said an aide to Caroline Kennedy, who previously had not responded to TIME.com's request for comment. Meanwhile, a source close to the Senator added, "The Kennedy people are not upset with the Caroline people, because they know it didn't come from her."

The aide also provided a chronology of Caroline Kennedy's decision to withdraw from the race. According to him, as late as Wednesday morning, the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy had been given every indication that she would receive the appointment to the Senate by Governor Paterson. During the afternoon, however, she became aware of what he described as an unspecified "personal situation." She called Paterson to inform him that she was withdrawing her name from consideration, but the governor asked her to reconsider that decision, which she did. (See pictures of J.F.K.'s presidential campaign.)

However, early Wednesday evening, while she was still mulling her decision, New York news outlets began reporting that she had taken herself out of the running. Caroline Kennedy called Paterson with her final decision after 10 p.m. E.T.

Both the New York Post and New York Daily News have quoted sources saying that Caroline Kennedy withdrew her name after learning that Paterson — who has the sole authority to name the replacement for Clinton — had decided against picking her. Recent polls have shown that while she was once considered a strong candidate for the position, New Yorkers now say they would prefer state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — another member of a famous political family, and a former cousin-by-marriage of Caroline Kennedy. A series of tense media appearances and an unusually aggressive behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by New York power brokers on her behalf have helped damage Kennedy's once unimpeachable above-the-fray image. (See pictures of TIME's J.F.K. covers.)

Those close to the Kennedy family are appalled at how Caroline's brief political career has fared. "Everything that was special about her got stripped away," says one. But this source, among others, says Caroline, an intensely private person who has made her impact largely through charity and volunteer projects, may not in fact be suited to the rough-and-tumble family business.

Paterson has indicated that he will appoint a replacement for Clinton later this week.

Read more about Caroline Kennedy's candidacy.

Read TIME's 10 Questions for Ted Kenendy