Sen. Edward M. Kennedy — who died of brain cancer last night at the age of 77 — taught me a rich and essential lesson for life in the mid-1990s while I was covering Congress.
In the so-called Republican Revolution, the GOP had gained control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. Democratic blood was all over the floor (speaking metaphorically), and long faces prevailed on what was left of the left.
Kennedy, though, barely missed a step in his march toward improving access to health care. He reached across the aisle, renewed working relationships with Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and other moderate Republicans. Pulling together, they passed sweeping legislation affecting the way millions of Americans get their health insurance.
Somehow, through all of the fame and all of the tragedy that came with the Kennedy name, a rock-solid work ethic had survived and flourished. Getting things done was more important than getting even. Think about it. That’s a remarkable attitude for a politician of our times. For that matter, for all of us.
Here’s another, far different, memory from my years of covering Kennedy in the course of covering national politics.
It’s January, 2004. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is trailing the Democratic front runners in the Iowa caucuses. To the rescue comes his friend Ted Kennedy.
There could be no doubt he was exploiting Kennedy magic. He packed the halls with Iowans who had come for a glimpse of this surviving standard bearer for the family that came as close as it gets to American royalty.
He danced his considerable bulk around the stage, engaging Kerry in a Ted-John routine that was far more political schtick than policy substance. They swapped jokes and one-liners. Then Kennedy raised his voice to a classic union-hall pitch. Sweating and hollering, the white-haired lion of a politician drove home the Kerry endorsement.
I worried he might have a heart attack. But the crowds loved it. And Kerry, of course, won both Iowa and the Democratic nomination that year.
Looking back now, I realize this was a variation on the theme of getting things done.
Here are other nuggets from Kennedy remembrances reported in newspapers around the country:
Alone of the Kennedy men of his generation, he lived to comb gray hair, as the Irish poet had it. It was a blessing and a curse, as he surely knew, and assured that his defeats and human foibles as well as many triumphs played out in public at greater length than his brothers ever experienced.
He was the only Kennedy brother to run for the White House and lose. His brother John was president when he was assassinated in 1963 a few days before Thanksgiving; Robert fell to a gunman in mid-campaign five years later. An older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed piloting a plane in World War II.
Runner-up in a two-man race for the Democratic nomination in 1980, this Kennedy closed out his failed candidacy with a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many in a packed Madison Square Garden.
“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” he said. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”
— David Espo, The Associated Press
Senator Kennedy was at or near the center of much of American history in the latter part of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. For much of his adult life, he veered from victory to catastrophe, winning every Senate election he entered but failing in his only try for the presidency; living through the sudden deaths of his brothers and three of his nephews; being responsible for the drowning death on Chappaquiddick Island of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to his brother Robert. . . .
He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.
— The New York Times
For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.
I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of events, he always had time for a new colleague. I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the Presidency. And even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I’ve profited as President from his encouragement and wisdom.
An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.
— President Barack Obama in a statement
The fact that his tangible accomplishments transcended his mythic role in the Kennedy drama attests to the vast extent of his legislative impact. In each of four areas, he dominated legislative politics for more than four decades, spanning ten presidencies, and played a large role in transforming the government’s relationship to the people.
Bill by bill, provision by provision, he expanded government health support to millions of children and the elderly, helped millions more go to college, opened the immigration doors to millions of new Americans from continents other than Europe, and protected the civil rights bulwark of the ’60s through a long period of conservative domination.
And by the time his life ended yesterday, surrounded by loved ones in a gentle scene that contrasted sharply with the violent deaths of his brothers, Ted Kennedy had built a nuts-and-bolts legacy to stand beside that of his presidential brother as a figure of hope and his senatorial brother as a figure of compassion.
— Boston Globe
Today America lost a great elder statesman, a committed public servant, and leader of the Senate. And today I lost a treasured friend. Ted Kennedy was an iconic, larger than life United States Senator whose influence cannot be overstated. Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy’s name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber. When I first came to the United States Senate I was filled with conservative fire in my belly and an itch to take on any and everyone who stood in my way, including Ted Kennedy. As I began working within the confines of my office I soon found out that while we almost always disagreed on most issues, once in a while we could actually get together and find the common ground, which is essential in passing legislation. . . . In the current climate of today’s United States Senate it is rare to find opportunities where both sides can come together and work in the middle to craft a solution for our country’s problems. Ted Kennedy, with all of his ideological verbosity and idealism, was a rare person who at times could put aside differences and look for common solutions.
— Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, reported in the Washington Post
Nowhere outside the United States is the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy being mourned as much as in Ireland, the country from where his ancestors emigrated during the potato famine of the 19th century and to which he helped bring peace in recent years.
President Mary McAleese said he would be remembered as a “hugely important friend to the country during very difficult times,” and Prime Minister Brian Cowen commented that Ireland had lost a true friend who “worked valiantly for the cause of peace on this island.”
The sentiments are not overblown. The Massachusetts senator was for four decades the Irish Government’s staunchest ally on Capitol Hill. He first became involved in Ireland in 1971 when he told the U.S. Senate that, “Ulster is becoming Britain’s Vietnam” and that British troops should be withdrawn.
Such statements aroused deep resentment in the British establishment. When as a reporter in London I asked Lord Hailsham, then-Lord Chancellor, what effect such interventions by Irish Americans like Senator Kennedy would have on British policy on Ireland, he retorted angrily: “Those Roman Catholic bastards, how dare they interfere!”
— Conor O’Clery in Global Post
“He was known to the world as the Lion of the Senate, a champion of social justice, and a political icon . . . Most importantly, he was the rock of our family: a loving husband, father, brother and uncle. He was a man of great faith and character.”
“I have personally benefited and grown from his experience and advice, and I know countless others have as well. . . . Teddy taught us all that public service isn’t a hobby or even an occupation, but a way of life and his legacy will live on.”
— California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement reported by the Los Angeles Times
Former President George H.W. Bush: “Barbara and I were deeply saddened to learn Ted Kennedy lost his valiant battle with cancer. While we didn’t see eye-to-eye on many political issues through the years, I always respected his steadfast public service — so much so, in fact, that I invited him to my library in 2003 to receive the Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service. Ted Kennedy was a seminal figure in the United States Senate — a leader who answered the call to duty for some 47 years, and whose death closes a remarkable chapter in that body’s history. Barbara and I — and all Bushes — send our heartfelt condolences to Victoria, Ted’s kids, and the entire Kennedy family.”
Nancy Reagan, wife of former President Ronald Reagan: “Given our political differences, people are sometimes surprised by how close Ronnie and I have been to the Kennedy family. But Ronnie and Ted could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another. In recent years, Ted and I found our common ground in stem cell research, and I considered him an ally and a dear friend. I will miss him.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook: “I would like to extend our sympathies to the Kennedy family as we hear word about the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy. He believed in our country and fought passionately for his convictions.”
— Statements reported in the Washington Post