The Senate’s Fighting Liberal

The Senate’s Fighting Liberal

Sen. Ted Kennedy has passed away at the age of 77. This 2002 Nation profile by the late Jack Newfield captures the essence of what this legend meant to the progressive movement.


AP Images
Sen. Kennedy at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver.

Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away after a long battle with brain cancer on August 25, 2009. This 2002 profile by the late Jack Newfield captures the essence of what this legend meant to the progressive movement.

When Ted Kennedy arrived in Washington at the close of 1962 as the freshman senator from Massachusetts, he was welcomed with derision and low expectations. Just 30 years old, the President’s kid brother, he had accomplished nothing in his life to earn the prize of a seat in the US Senate. Most pundits saw him as a dummy who had cheated on an exam at Harvard to stay eligible for football and who was dependent on an excellent staff to compensate for his inexperience.

Now, forty years later, Ted Kennedy looks like the best and most effective senator of the past hundred years. He has followed the counsel of his first Senate tutor, Phil Hart of Michigan, who told him you can accomplish anything in Washington if you give others the credit. Kennedy has drafted and shaped more landmark legislation than liberal giants like Robert Wagner, Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver and Herbert Lehmann. He has survived tragedy and scandal, endured presidential defeat, right-wing demonization, ridicule by TV comics. Now, at 70, he has evolved into a joyous Job. His career has become an atonement for one night of indefensible behavior, when he failed to report the fatal 1969 accident in which he drove off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, leaving a young woman to drown in the car. He has converted persistence into redemption.

In 1985 Kennedy forever renounced seeking the presidency, declaring, “The pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is.” By abandoning higher ambition, he found a form of liberation. He had nothing left to lose. The weight of the country’s–and his family’s–expectations was lifted from his shoulders. His motives were perceived as less calculating and self-aggrandizing. He could settle into the Senate for the long march. He could become a patient and disciplined legislator without feeling like a failure. When the GOP won control of the Senate in 1994 and some Democrats, like George Mitchell, quit after losing their leadership posts and committee chairmanships, Kennedy stayed and fought in the trenches.

Now, as the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and as the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, he is at the center of the action. Soon his domestic economic priorities, which were on the front burner prior to September 11–raising the minimum wage, enacting a patients’ bill of rights, creating jobs and “passing national health insurance, bit by bit”–will come around again.

Kennedy’s zeal to “get something done,” and his aisle-crossing friendships with Republicans, have led him into a puzzling, limited partnership with President Bush. They negotiated the details of the education bill together and are now talking about a compromise on the patients’ bill of rights.

“I like Bush, personally,” Kennedy told me in December. “He has an excellent sense of humor, and I can communicate with him. He’s a skilled politician. I would say we are professional friends.” The two dynasts also privately share a feeling of having had their intelligence underestimated.

Bush has gone out of his way to court Kennedy, recognizing his power in the divided Senate. Bush named the Justice Department building for Robert Kennedy last November, despite opposition by conservative Republicans in the House. And on the day the education bill was signed, Bush told the crowd at a rally in Boston that Kennedy had been with Laura Bush when the first word of the September 11 terrorist attacks arrived; he thanked Kennedy for “providing such comfort to Laura during an incredibly tough time…. So, Mr. Senator, not only are you a good senator, you’re a good man.”

Kennedy thought he got more than half of what he wanted in the education bill when it was announced and celebrated. But five weeks later, when the devilish details of Bush’s budget request to Congress were disclosed, Kennedy felt betrayed. Money promised to repair dilapidated schools and reduce class size in poor districts was not actually in the budget.

Fortunately for Kennedy’s progressive pedigree, he had not pulled his punches in criticizing Bush on domestic issues during the prolonged education negotiations. Kennedy vigorously opposed John Ashcroft’s nomination, attacked secret military tribunals for resident aliens and helped defeat Bush’s economic stimulus package, which was biased in favor of the rich. He has forged a Democratic consensus behind a bill protecting pensions, a rival to Bush’s.

Kennedy and his allies will try to increase spending on education above what Bush allocated. From 1996 through 2002, federal outlays for education expanded an average of 13.4 percent a year; Bush has now proposed a minuscule increase of 2.8 percent for 2003. “The President’s budget fails to provide resources that were agreed to,” Kennedy said. Today, Kennedy is more skeptical about Bush’s intentions, calling his budget “a severe blow to the nation’s schools.” But he says he will attempt to “pry him away from the far right on some limited issues.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ted Kennedy is reluctant to be quoted directly about the future direction of the Democratic Party. Like a veteran ballplayer, he prefers to lead by example. He ducks questions about factions and agendas, but his savvy staff points questioners to the texts of two Kennedy speeches, delivered on January 11, 1995, and October 24, 2001.

Together, these texts provide a basis from which to discern Kennedy’s road map. They sketch a combative alternative to the GOP’s anti-union, anti-poor, anti-urban biases. They are also a warning against the compromising corporate alliances of Democrats like Terry McAuliffe, who made an $18 million profit on Global Crossing stock, and Senator Jeff Bingaman, whose wife made $2.5 million in six months as a lobbyist for Global Crossing before it went bankrupt.

The 1995 speech came in the context of Newt Gingrich being sworn in as Speaker in the wake of the GOP’s gain of fifty-three House seats in November 1994–the same day that Mario Cuomo was defeated in the New York gubernatorial race and Tom Foley was trounced in the Washington State House race.

In this sail-against-the-wind speech, given at the National Press Club, Kennedy rejected the conventional wisdom that the 1994 elections proved the country was veering sharply to the right. He argued that the reason the Democrats lost so many elections was that they had compromised too much and shed their distinct identity. Kennedy famously declared: “If the Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition, we will lose–and deserve to lose. The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties.”

Before Kennedy made this argument in public, he delivered it in private to President Clinton, who was in a deep funk over the 1994 election and being urged by pollster Dick Morris to compromise even more and embrace portions of the Gingrich-Dole agenda.

Kennedy told Clinton to fight for incremental national healthcare, jobs and an increase in the minimum wage, and to resist making any cuts in education. He gave Clinton a memo that summed up his thinking on what a Democratic Party in power should stand for. The memo said: “Democrats are for higher wages and new job opportunities. Republicans are for cuts to pay for tax breaks for the rich.”

Kennedy’s October 2001 speech on the Senate floor, opposing Bush’s stingy, elitist economic stimulus package, is another road map for lost Democrats. In it, Kennedy asserted that any effective economic stimulus should “target the dollars to low- and moderate-income families, who are most certain to spend it rather than save it.”

The key to Kennedy’s politics is his belief that Democrats must simultaneously advocate for the poor and the middle class at the expense of the wealthy and corporate America. As someone whose policies and politics are so well integrated, Kennedy knows that liberals win elections when the poor and the middle class vote together. And liberals lose when the suburban, indpendent middle-class votes with the upper classes.

Kennedy made his populist thinking explicit on January 16, when he became the first senator to urge postponement of $300 billion in tax cuts for the affluent. He said the savings should be applied to prescription drugs for the elderly, extending unemployment benefits and protecting Social Security. Since January, only one other senator has joined Kennedy–Paul Wellstone, the Senate’s most progressive member.

What is not at all clear is how Kennedy’s mentoring of John Edwards fits into his broader thinking about what his party should stand for, and who should be its nominee in 2004. When I asked a Kennedy friend about Massachusetts junior Senator John Kerry, who is testing his own candidacy for 2004, I was directed to page 565 in Adam Clymer’s “definitive” biography of Kennedy.

That page contains an anecdote about a January 31, 1995, meeting of Democratic Party leaders from both houses. It was convened to consider whether to back Kennedy’s bill raising the minimum wage, from a miserly $4.25 an hour. Kennedy arrived late for the meeting, and as he walked in, he heard Senator Kerry voicing his doubts about the bill. “If you’re not for raising the minimum wage, you don’t deserve to call yourself a Democrat,” was Kennedy’s angry response.

For whatever reason, Kennedy doesn’t want to appear dogmatic or overbearing about where Democrats should go from here. But this remark makes vivid his thinking that higher wages, more jobs and more healthcare are the foundations of the future.

Personal tragedy often provides the most powerful training in empathy and compassion. Ted Kennedy has buried two assassinated brothers he loved, a brother-in-law (Steve Smith) who became like a brother to him, and three young nephews, including John Kennedy Jr., whom he eulogized as another Kennedy who did not live long enough “to comb gray hair.” While Kennedy was still a teenager, his older siblings, Joe and Kathleen, died. And his son survived cancer.

Kennedy has acquired both a tragic sense of life and what the late Murray Kempton called “losing-side consciousness.” He identifies with hurt and loss. And he is able to translate his empathy into public remedies and reforms. I realized this when I asked him to tell me the story behind his eight-year campaign to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law he co-sponsored and managed on the Senate floor.

“In 1974,” Kennedy began, “I spent every Friday in the waiting room at Boston’s Children’s Hospital with my son, Teddy Jr. He was getting experimental chemotherapy treatments. And other parents started coming up to me and telling me how they had lost their jobs because they were taking care of a child diagnosed with cancer, and missing work.

“That was the origin of it. Nobody should lose a job because of a family medical emergency. I didn’t lose my job because my priorities were with my son. I just told Mike Mansfield [the Democratic leader in the Senate] that I couldn’t be there on Fridays. But less fortunate fathers lost their jobs because they couldn’t get a leave from their employer.”

Kennedy drafted a bill with Senator Chris Dodd that granted up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a family medical crisis, protecting the job security of all workers with more than one year on the job. The Kennedy-Dodd bill was originally introduced in 1985 and passed the Congress in 1991, but it was vetoed by Bush the Elder. It was passed again in 1993 and signed by President Clinton. But it was conceived in those painful conversations with other desperate parents in the waiting room of the Children’s Hospital in 1974.

Because of his personal experience of tragedy, Ted Kennedy has become America’s national grief counselor. When the two planes were hijacked out of Boston’s Logan Airport last September 11 and ninety-three residents of Massachusetts were killed, Kennedy personally called about 125 family members to offer assistance and solace.

He was so moved by one conversation with a grieving father that he sent the man a copy of a private letter his own father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, had written to a close friend in 1958, upon hearing about the death of the friend’s son.

Ted Kennedy’s ability to get up every morning and just keep going, no matter what, is his defining quality. And this quotation of consolation from his father sheds some light on Kennedy’s credo of perseverance. The letter says:

When one of your loved ones goes out of your life, you think of what he might have done for a few more years, and you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours.
      Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it, trying to accomplish something–something he did not have time to do. And, perhaps, that is the reason for it all. I hope so.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy