Ted Kennedy was known as “The Lion” of the Senate. To most of us, his triumphs and his failings were bigger than life.
But he touched a number of Minnesota politicians, of both parties, in smaller, simple ways. He is remembered by them for his humor, his respectfulness, his approachability.
Not surprisingly, to young Minnesota Democrats, he was a hero.
Ellison: the adoring fan
Rep. Keith Ellison gulped the first time he was in the same room with Kennedy. Ellison was a newly elected congressman, and he was in the House chamber for a State of the Union address by President Bush.
Ellison spotted Kennedy, summoned up his courage and approached.
“I was this adoring fan,” Ellison recalled. “I went up to him and said, ‘I’m a brand-new congressman from Minnesota and I wanted to tell you I’ve always admired you.’ ”
Kennedy responded by throwing his arm around Ellison and welcoming him.
“He started telling me what a great state Minnesota is, what a great liberal tradition,” Ellison recalled. “I’m not claiming that we were tight friends or anything like that. But he was one of those people who make you feel good immediately.”
Ellison reached for an analogy of what first meeting — and then coming to know — Kennedy was like. “Meeting him for the first time, I felt like I was a rookie NBA player who got to lace up and play with Dr. J,” Ellison said. “I remember thinking, ‘How did I get into this league? How is it that I get to play with a hero of mine?’ ”
Whenever the two would cross paths in the Capitol, Kennedy would reach out to Ellison, and this morning the congressman was remembering small things. There was a time, for example, when the prime minister of Ireland was giving a speech in Washington.
“I’m pleased to report that there is peace in Ireland,” the prime minister said.
Ellison looked toward Kennedy.
“I saw a tear running down his cheek,” said Ellison. “That moment told me it isn’t just politics that he was involved in. It was personal. The great passion you’d see was genuine.”
Now that he’s gone, Ellison is hopeful that there will be “re-dedication” to Kennedy’s greatest lifelong passion: health care reform.
“This is the time to celebrate a great man,” Ellison said. “I don’t mean to exploit his death, but wouldn’t it be most fitting that his final, lasting legacy be comprehensive reform?”
Klobuchar: the late-night bull sessions
For reasons she doesn’t altogether understand, Sen. Amy Klobuchar became part of a small group of senators invited to share late-night bull sessions in Kennedy’s office, tucked away in a corner of the Capitol.
Kennedy, Klobuchar and Charles Schumer of New York and Maria Cantewell of Washington were regulars. Others, too, would stop by.
Kennedy, of course, was the gregarious host, telling laughed-filled stories, about the characters of the Senate.
The Kennedy-clan relationship with Minnesota always had been filled with competition. JFK had to defeat Hubert Humphrey to win the nomination for president. Later, Humphrey was paired off against Bobby Kennedy. And then, Ted Kennedy himself unsuccessfully took on Carter-Mondale.
But any sting that he might have felt from those encounters was long gone, Klobuchar said.
“He told stories about Humphrey,” said Klobuchar. “He told a great story about how he once came to Minnesota and shared a stage with Humphrey. He’d spent all this time preparing a speech. The five bad things about Richard Nixon or something like that. He gave the speech and got a great response. But two weeks later, he heard that Humphrey was in Los Angeles giving this great speech about the eight things bad about Richard Nixon.”’
The stories rolled on as the senators, sipping a beer, waited for the next late-night vote. There were never policy debates in that setting. There was only laughter, but within the laughs there were lessons, too. Lessons such as the importance of getting to know people.
“He was always interested in the politics of every state,” Klobuchar. “He knew what was happening in Minnesota. He liked the fact that my dad was a reporter and my mom was a teacher.”
He got to know Klobuchar’s family. The Minnesota senator forever will have a mental picture of her daughter walking Kennedy’s dog, Splash, through the Capitol corridors.
And she’s not quite sure how anyone can fill that chair in the back of the Senate favored by Kennedy.
“He sat in the back, watching everything that was going on,” said Klobuchar.
Boschwitz: the family connections
Back in their time in the Senate, Ted Kennedy always would approach former Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz with a smile on his face.
Boschwitz served in the Senate from 1978 to 1991. By the time of his arrival, Kennedy already had already been a senator for 16 years, but he hadn’t yet become an iconic figure. Still, he had a special charm.
“Much of my family lived in Massachusetts,” Boschwitz said this morning. “My sister lives in Cambridge. She had four girls — we’ve got four boys. We differed on many things, including politics.”
So active was Boschwitz’s sister, Bert Hartry, in Massachusetts politics and national feminist politics, that Kennedy knew her. So whenever he crossed paths with Boschwitz, a stalwart Republican, he’d laugh.
“He’d work me over,” recalled Boschwitz. “He’d always go on at great lengths about my family. He’d always inquired about my sister, my nieces, my brother-in-law and tell me how they were bringing honor to the family name. I’d say I was the reasonable one.”
Though they weren’t close on most issues or personally, there still was always time for the banter and the laughter that went with it.
The Kennedy off the Senate floor was so different from the Kennedy on the floor, Boschwitz said.
“On the floor, that voice of his just boomed,”Boschwitz said. “On the floor, he was very partisan. But behind the scenes, he was most friendly and cooperative and willing to listen.”
The Minnesota Republican and the Massachusetts Democrat did work on big things, and small, together.
They worked closely together on the immigration reform bill of the 1980s.
“At the time, I was the only immigrant in the Senate,” said Boschwitz, who was born in Germany. “He was very respectful of that.”
There were small things, too, the sorts of issues that get no media attention.
For example, when Boschwitz married, 55 years ago, he and his wife took a honeymoon trip to Nantucket Island. They loved the place so much they purchased a property there.
At one point, while Boschwitz was in the Senate, a storm blew over a historic old lighthouse on the island. Together, he and Kennedy put together a small bill to repair the lighthouse, which stands to this day.
Boschwitz constantly kept going back to two things when he talked of Kennedy:
His humor — “He was always fun to be around.”
And his staff. The Kennedy staff, said Boschwitz, was extraordinary: always available, always top-notch. What was unique about that staff is that it could speak, authoritatively, for Kennedy.
Even now, almost two decades after he left the Senate, Boschwitz sometimes will work with Kennedy’s staff — especially on immigration problems.
“I still get calls from immigrants who may have some problem or another,” he said.
On occasion, he still calls Kennedy’s staff for help in solving the problem of an immigrant who has come to him.
“They’re always willing to work with me,” said Boschwitz.
Ramstad: connections with father and son
Former Congressman Jim Ramstad was on the way to the Kennedy compound when he called to talk about his friends, the Kennedys.
Though their politics generally were different, Ramstad’s friendships with Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Patrick’s dad, Ted, run deep.
“Patrick came back to Minnesota when my dad died,” Ramstad said, “and when he called, he asked, ‘Could I come over early?’ The way I looked at it, friendships are always deeper than politics.”
Ramstad, of course, has been supportive of Patrick during times of chemical dependency crises, and he worked hard with both Patrick and Ted and, before his death, Sen. Paul Wellstone, in creating mental health parity bills.
“He [Ted Kennedy] was the most accomplished legislator I knew in my 18 years in Congress,” said Ramstad, the moderate Republican.
In fact, Ramstad’s first met both Ted and Bobby Kennedy when both were in the Senate in 1967.
“I was a messenger on the floor of the United States Senate,” Ramstad said. “No senators were nicer to pages. Remember, we were on the low end of the totem pole.”
Well, not the real low end of the totem pole. There was an old man, D.C. Cohen, who directed the work of the pages.
“Whenever we [the pages] would act a little awestruck, he would call us together and say, ‘Always remember, a page in the Senate is more important than any House member.’ ”
Oh, so many memories were flashing through Ramstad’s mind today.
Mostly, there were little things.
For instance, when the parity act finally was passed by Congress, a signing ceremony was held with President Bush.
Ramstad was there. As was former Sen. Pete Domenici and the Kennedys, Pat and Ted.
“After the signing, the president and Kennedy started talking baseball,” Ramstad said. “First thing you know, they were asking each other trivia questions. This went back and forth for about eight or 10 questions when the president said, ‘I’ve got one you can’t answer.’ ”
“Let’s hear it,” said Kennedy.
“Who was the only pitcher to strike out Ted Williams three times in a single game?’’ the president asked.
Kennedy, a huge fan of the Boston Red Sox, threw out several names. The president, smiling, kept saying, “No.”
Finally, Kennedy yielded.
“He’s a colleague of yours,” Bush said.
“Jim Bunning,” said Kennedy. “. . . .Well, that’s the luck of the Irish for you.”
Bush trumped him.
“He’s not Irish,’’ Bush said of the Kentucky senator. “He’s Scottish.”
“That’s close,” said Kennedy.
“He liked to get in the last word,” Ramstad said.
Update: Durenberger remembers Kennedy
In his years in the Senate (1978 to 1995), former Sen. Dave Durenberger, a moderate Republican, saw two Ted Kennedys.
“There was the aspirational Kennedy,’’ recalled Durenberger, “and then he moved into that second phase where he decided to become the great senator.’’
The aspirational phase, during which Kennedy thought he could be president, ended with the rise of Ronald Reagan.
“He got to enjoy being a great senator and the rest of us got to enjoy working with him,’’ Durenberger said.
Durenberger worked with Kennedy frequently. It was the blending of Jesse Helms, Durenberger and Kennedy, the right, left and middle of the Senate, that worked together to get President George H.W. Bush the congressional authority he needed to oust Manuel Noriega from power in Panama in 1989.
Though they disagreed on what sort of reform should be done, both Durenberger and Kennedy believed strongly that major change was needed in the nation’s health care system.
But on days like Wednesday, it wasn’t the big political issues that Durenberger remembered. It was the moments of sweet humanity.
In 1994, Kennedy was trying to get the ill-fated Clinton health care reform through at least one Senate committee of which Durenberger was a member.
“The day we started was the day my oldest son’s wife was to have a baby,’’ recalled Durenberger. “There are all sorts of speeches going on and I’m in and out of the committee meeting, checking out to see whether the baby [his first grandchild] had been born yet.
“About noon, I step out again and my son tells me ‘it’s a girl,’’’ Durenberger recalled. “I break down crying. I dry my tears and step back into the committee room and the first thing that happens is Kennedy bangs his gavel down on the table.’’
“It’s now possible to explain why Senator Durenberger has been so damned ornery these last few days,’’ Kennedy said.
“Sarah Marie Durenberger,’’ Kennedy continued. “Welcome to this world.’’
Handshakes and joy broke out in the room.
Said Durenberger: “The man could take your breath away.’’
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.