The Senate's Fighting Liberal | The Nation


The Senate's Fighting Liberal

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After forty years, Ted Kennedy's name, or imprint, is on an impressive array of legislative monuments, including: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for which he delivered his maiden Senate speech; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the expansion of the voting franchise to 18-year-olds; the $24 billion Kennedy-Hatch law of 1997, which provided health insurance to children with a new tax on tobacco; two increases in the minimum wage; the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which made health insurance portable for workers; the 1988 law that allocated $1.2 billion for AIDS testing, treatment and research; the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act; the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act; and last year's 1,200-page education reform act, which he negotiated directly with President Bush and his staff.

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

Kennedy has also helped abolish the poll tax, liberalize immigration laws, fund cancer research and create the Meals on Wheels program for shut-ins and the elderly.

In 1985 Kennedy and Republican Lowell Weicker co-sponsored the legislation that imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The bill became law despite opposition from Bob Dole, a filibuster by Jesse Helms and a veto by President Reagan. Only Kennedy could have mustered the votes to override by 78 to 21 a veto from Reagan at the height of his power.

Kennedy also ignited, and then led like a commando, the successful resistance to Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination by Reagan in 1987. Kennedy's passionate opposition from day one helped keep abortion legal in America. If confirmed, Bork would have provided the fifth vote to repeal Roe v. Wade. Instead, Reagan was forced to nominate Anthony Kennedy in Bork's place, and Justice Kennedy has supported the retention of legal abortion as settled precedent.

The Senator has been influential under Republican Presidents, and when liberals were in the minority in the Senate. He has made himself into a skilled parliamentary strategist, wielding power as the third-most-senior member of the Senate, after Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd.

The key to Kennedy's effectiveness has been his remarkable capacity to form warm, genuine friendships--more than mere working alliances--with GOP senators. He's done this with conservatives like Orrin Hatch and Alan Simpson, as well as with moderates like John McCain, Bill Frist, Lowell Weicker and Nancy Kassebaum, before she retired. He has also established enduring ties with centrist Democrats like Robert Byrd and North Carolina freshman John Edwards, whom he has privately recommended to friends as a potential presidential nominee in 2004. Kennedy's wife and Edwards's wife, both lawyers, are close friends.

Perhaps the only senator Kennedy does not have cordial relations with is the cranky caveman Jesse Helms. Kennedy even co-sponsored and passed a law against church burning with Helms's North Carolina protégé, Lauch Faircloth, in 1996.

Kennedy has found a way to be both bipartisan in his affections and alliances and partisan in his belief that government has an obligation to make America a more equal country. This apparent paradox is Kennedy's paradigm. He can shout, pound a table and turn red in the face while giving a stemwinder that stirs up the party's base. And the next day he can be jovial while making a legislative deal over cigars with the Republican barons of the Senate. Kennedy always wants to "get something done" at the frontier of the possible.

I asked Arizona Republican John McCain (co-sponsor with Kennedy of the patients' bill of rights) to illuminate Kennedy's ability to reach across the divide of party affiliation and form intricate human bonds.

"Ted always keeps his word," McCain responded. "This is essential in a small group of people like the Senate. There is no bullshit with Ted. You know exactly where he is coming from. He does what he says he will do. He is a great listener in a body of poor listeners. This makes it easy to deal with him. Look, I've had my fights with him. We disagree on a lot of things. But Ted doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He likes people. And he doesn't hold a grudge."

Even Trent Lott, the conservative Republican leader in the Senate, has warmed up to Kennedy after years of pressuring GOP senators not to partner with him on legislation. In 1998 Lott sent Kennedy a handwritten note that is now framed in Kennedy's office. Lott wrote:

Your thoughtfulness truly amazes me. First the print from Cape Cod. Then the special edition of Profiles in Courage. I brought it home and re-read it. What an inspiration! Thank you, my friend, for your many courtesies. If the world only knew.

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