The Ted Kennedy I knew
by Ted Van Dyk
A final tribute to Ted Kennedy in Congress Credit: White House
When Sen. Ted Kennedy died at 77 of brain cancer Tuesday night in Hyannis Port, Mass. it came as no surprise. When he was stricken in 2008, his doctors told family he might survive only until early this year. Yet, characteristically, he remained engaged in his legislative work — if, necessarily, from a distance through other Senators and his incredibly loyal staff — until the very end.
His career spanned the period from his brother John F. Kennedy’s Presidency to the Great Society breakthroughs of 1965 to present day. Only West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, himself in ill health and absent from the Senate, has had a comparable run.
Kennedy properly was characterized as a “lion” for his fearless, constant effort on behalf of causes in which he believed. Yet, in doing his job, he was a throwback to the Old Senate that existed when he entered it.
Conservative groups often used him as a poster boy for what they regarded as liberal, big-government approaches to policy. But his Senate Republican colleagues never did. They respected and even revered him for his willingness to work across partisan and ideological lines and, most of all, for doing his homework and putting petty considerations aside in seeking solutions for the general public good. Even while opposing President George W. Bush on national security and some domestic issues, he worked with him to pass a Medicare drug benefit and No Child Left Behind legislation.
His absence creates a huge hole in the capital. It will be felt, in particular, as President Obama and congressional Democrats attempt to frame and pass health legislation. They appear, now, headed for a Democrats-only effort to do so. Kennedy would never have taken such a path. His instinct was to begin a legislative effort by enlisting bipartisan support at the outset — and only after hearings and offstage discussions had paved the way for such an approach.
Kennedy was the youngest child of the remarkable Kennedy family. If you think birth order makes no difference, think again. He could at times show signs of being the “baby” but he also strove mightily to achieve and to meet expectations. Over the past 30 years he conscientiously served as the head of a large Kennedy extended family often struck by illness and tragedy. In the 1990s, while he was approaching the crest of his Senate career, Democrats found themselves in minority status in the Congress. Yet he continued dawn-to-dark work days while knowing that, in the end, the other party was in the majority and controlled final outomes. Let’s put it simply: He worked hard and never gave up.
Now, for some personal reminiscences. In 1960 I was living in Boston with my wife and baby. I had been a supporter of the more liberal Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Presidential nomination but enthusiastically did volunteer work in his Boston headquarters for John F. Kennedy in his campaign against Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s youngest brother, Ted, was just starting his career as an assistant district attorney. I signed up for his forming U.S. Senate campaign. But, in late 1961, I was recalled during the Berlin Crisis to military duty at the Pentagon and never got back to Boston.
Down the road I became then-Vice President Humphrey’s assistant in the Johnson White House. Humphrey, President Kennedy, and Attorney General (and later Senator) Robert Kennedy had genuine mutual friendships. But Humphrey took special interest in Ted Kennedy when he came to the Senate. He had first known him when, as a University of Virginia law student, Kennedy invited Humphrey to address a public forum there and acted as his host on campus. When Ted Kennedy’s name was mentioned, Humphrey would immediately smile. They were soul brothers in their idealism and commitment to the early 1960s justice agenda.
Humphrey, as Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, would in 1968 become entrapped in the Vietnam War issue. His friends Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy became his challengers for the Democratic Presidential nomination. But, in the fall campaign, Ted Kennedy worked hard for Humphrey. Humphrey’s first post-nomination campaign rally was in Boston. He was subjected to fierce and often vicious heckling. But Ted Kennedy stood at his side throughout. Afterward, he said he wanted to see Humphrey briefly on his campaign plane before it departed Boston. He put his arms around Humphrey and told him to count on him. After Humphrey’s September speech, breaking with Johnson on the war, Ted Kennedy was the first Democratic leader to make a strong endorsing statement.
Years later, operating a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, I had regular contact with Kennedy and his staff on various issues, including airline deregulation (where his Judiciary Committee staff assistant was present Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer) and pharmaceutical-industry reform. Sometimes he was in agreement with my clients, sometimes at odds. But, whatever the case, he related to them always on the basis of substance and took seriously their views — and always seeking common ground which could lead to problem solving.
In late 1979, despairing of President Jimmy Carter’s chances of 1980 reelection, I was one of several people who independently urged Kennedy to challenge him for renomination. It clearly went against Kennedy’s instinct to challenge an incumbent President of his own party but, in the end, he did so. I helped start a Kennedy campaign in Washington state and, then, spent a month in the capital preparing his policy/political briefing materials for possible debates with Carter as well as for general campaign purposes. He never forgot my help, as he never forgot anyone who at any time had stood with him. (Every Christmas season, over many years, Kennedy hosted a party for those many people who served on his staff at one time or another).
When my late wife was diagnosed with a difficult cancer, his Health subcommittee staff immediately sought National Institutes of Health and other help for her. He helped raise money for a think tank I ran in the 1980s and, as I think of it, went out of his way to include me in various later activities he was sponsoring. Hundreds of others can tell similar stories.
Unlike many high-level political figures, Kennedy did not see those who helped as disposable objects to be discarded when their utility to him waned. He became their lifelong friends — the kind of person you would call in the middle of the night if a dire emergency arose. That accounted for the long service over the years of his Senate staff members. His senior legislative assistant, Carey Parker, served in that capacity for him over decades. I have known no former or present Ted Kennedy staff member who has not admired or respected him. That cannot be said of many other national leaders’ staff members.
One day, as I was walking down a corridor near his Senate office, Kennedy spotted me and beckoned me to enter. He opened his center desk drawer and withdrew a news clipping concerning a mutual friend who also was his close Senate colleague. Accompanied by a photo, it portrayed the friend in an uproarious exchange with campaign hecklers which ended with the Senator wrestling a heckler to the ground. The caption on the photo read: “Big Government in Action.” Kennedy could not stop laughing. I had a hunch he had shared the clipping and photo often.
While working out of his office during his 1980 campaign, I became aware that his aged mother sent him a weekly supply of her home-baked cookies. Worrying about his weight, his staff would try to withhold the cookies from him. A hide-and-seek scenario took place in which Kennedy would check the mail room to see whether the cookies had yet arrived while his staff would pretend they had not. Kennedy usually won the contest, finding the cookie box and immediately taking it to his office for opening.
Shortly after Democrats had lost congressional majority status, costing Kennedy his committee chairmanships, I encountered him one evening at a friend’s birthday party. “Majority or minority,” he said, “I intend to get up each morning to fight for things in which I believe, whether I am alone or have an army behind me.” That, I thought, summed up Ted Kennedy.
Kennedy always “fought for things in which he believed,” and he achieved many of them. But, winning or losing, he respected the interests and views of those who disagreed with him and, down the road, would try to join them in other causes in which they could find common ground.
President Obama may be President because, during the 2008 Democratic nominating contest, Ted Kennedy gave him a strong endorsement and campaigned for him. (He did so after former President Bill Clinton raised racial issues in South Carolina, while campaigning for Hillary Clinton — a tactic which Kennedy thought was out of bounds). Presently beset by troubles in pressing his health care, cap-and-trade, and other legislative proposals, Obama would do worse than to ask the question: What would Ted Kennedy do in this situation?
Kennedy would fight hard and never give up but still would see those who disagreed with him as persons of good will and intention whose views deserved respect. If not this time, maybe next time they could work together to get constructive public business done.
As time passes, Ted Kennedy almost surely will be remembered as one of the half-dozen great legislators of his lifetime. He was far more effective on the Hill than his older brothers, who saw Senate service as a way station to national office. He also was a good man.