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The Senate's Fighting Liberal | The Nation

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The Senate's Fighting Liberal

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During the 1980s Kennedy spent too many nights drinking too much, chasing younger women, trying to postpone the times when he was alone with his ghosts. He put on weight and seemed almost an Elvis Presley figure in premature, irreversible decline.

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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's silences during the Judiciary Committee's 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, were a low ebb for him, drawing rebukes from liberals and feminists for the first time. Anna Quindlen wrote in the New York Times that Kennedy "let us down because he had to; he was muzzled by the facts of his life." The hometown Boston Globe, usually loyal to Kennedy, editorialized that his "reputation as a womanizer made him an inappropriate and non-credible" critic of Thomas.

Thomas was confirmed 52 to 48, and Kennedy was ashamed of his inadequacy. But his failure also revealed that none of the other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had the stature to fill the void he left. The weak performances of Joe Biden, Patrick Leahy and Howell Heflin--none of whom had the internal inhibitions Kennedy had--proved Kennedy was irreplaceable as an energizing leader. Nobody else could derail Thomas the way Kennedy had stopped Bork.

In April 1991 Senator Hatch, the teetotaling Mormon from Utah, took Kennedy aside and pleaded with him to stop or limit his drinking, suggesting he was drinking himself to death and that Hatch didn't want to "lose Kennedy as a friend or as a colleague." Hatch's lecture did have an impact on Kennedy; two months later he met Vicki Reggie, and ended his partying. They were married in 1992.

Kennedy's family and friends date his political revival to his re-election victory over Mitt Romney in 1994. That campaign allowed him to reconnect with his reasons for believing in public service. In making the physical and emotional sacrifices necessary to win an exhausting campaign, Kennedy recovered his dedication to remain in the Senate, and he focused all his energies on the job.

In mid-September of that year the polls showed the race deadlocked. Romney was attacking Kennedy as a burned-out relic and promising voters, "I will not embarrass you." Then came the campaign's dramatic first debate at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Some of his own campaign staff didn't want Kennedy to debate. The Globe reported that debates "are widely seen as fraught with danger for the aging and sometimes tongue-tied Kennedy." The Boston Herald's venomous, right-wing columnist Howie Carr described Kennedy as "incoherent" and wrote that Kennedy's understanding of "'a sound economic policy' means only buying every fourth round" at the bar.

But anyone who still harbors the illusion that Ted Kennedy is not smart, or not fast-thinking, should study the tape of that confrontation. When a panelist asked Kennedy how he coped with his "personal failings," Kennedy answered:

"Every day of my life I try to be a better human being," he began, "a better father, a better son, a better husband. And since my life has changed with Vicki, I believe the people of this state understand that the kind of purpose and direction and new affection and confidence on personal matters has been enormously reinvigorating. And hopefully I am a better senator."

Romney then accused Kennedy of a nonexistent financial conflict of interest involving his "profiting" from a no-bid contract with Washington's Mayor Marion Barry, under which minority ownership rules were waived. Kennedy looked his rival in the eye and replied: "Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price in our commitment to public service." Romney's response was to complain about Kennedy bringing up his family too frequently.

Kennedy's debate performance transformed the election. He won with 57 percent of the vote.

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