In October, 2003 Journalist Adam Clymer of The New York Times, author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, discussed the youngest of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s children. Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts has spent decades in public life as a central voice in the Democratic Party — and a bipartisan collaborator, working with Senate Republicans on major legislation.
How do you characterize Ted Kennedy’s impact as a politician?
In November 2003 Ted Kennedy will have completed almost 40 years in the Senate, and the bulk of his legislative record has been made in the years since his failed run for the Presidency in 1980. He never articulated it, but he seems to have decided that his impact on the nation would have to be made in the Senate, not the White House one brother occupied and the other sought. He led the fight in one civil rights battle after another, fought for improvements in working conditions, health care and federal aid to education and benefits for the elderly like Meals on Wheels — and Medicare. He has been a central voice in the Democratic Party, warning repeatedly that it must never forget its core voters in an effort to appeal to business. “The last thing this country needs,” he said in speeches at the National Press Club after Republican landslides in 1981 and 1995, “is two Republican parties.”
What is Kennedy’s most significant accomplishment?
He calls civil rights the “great unfinished business of the nation,” but no one has done more to complete that task. Whether the work amounted to undoing setbacks imposed by the Reagan Administration or the Supreme Court, or extending civil rights protections to the disabled, Kennedy has been there. He helped outlaw the poll tax, pushed through legislation on housing discrimination, led the Congressional fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Success, however, has thus far escaped him in the effort to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
What has been his biggest professional failure?
His enduring legislative failure has been the effort to secure national health insurance. His inability to win the Presidency meant the issue never had the possibly decisive voice he would have given it. But health care is better because of his efforts in behalf of medical research and more accessible because of incremental changes he has pushed through, battles he has won while losing the war.
In your book, you chronicle the years Kennedy has spent working on health care reform. How would you describe his perseverance?
It’s not just health care, it’s his approach to political life, and life itself. At one level he has a willingness to settle for half a loaf, or even a slice, rather than serve as a doctrinaire voice for the perfect bill. In summer 2003, for example, he agreed with other liberals that the legislation to provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare was inadequate. But he disagreed with them about what to do. He said Democrats should vote for it, try to improve it with amendments, and then, when its weaknesses became apparent in operation, vote to put more money behind the policy.
Then there was the advice he gave President Bill Clinton when he was facing impeachment. Clinton told me: “His advice is always simple. It’s just sort of get up and go to work, just keep going, and remember why you wanted the job in the first place. He’s a very tough guy, and he understands that if somebody accuses you of something that’s true, maybe you’re your own worst enemy, and you have to hope that when people add up the score, there will be more pluses than minuses. And if somebody accuses you of something that is not [true], then it will probably get sorted out sooner or later, and there is very little you can do about it except do the job you asked the people for.”
In the book, you also explore his bipartisan approach. Why do you think he crosses party lines so readily?
Except for an increase or two in the Federal minimum wage, there has been hardly any Kennedy legislative effort accomplished without a major Republican ally — often one who ended up with more of the public credit. He starts any major effort by looking for potential Republican allies. It goes back to the days when he got to the Senate, when it was not a partisan institution at all and senators, regardless of party, got to know each other the way co-workers do in other kinds of business. That helps provide the inclination — that and the fact that he knows little gets done in the Senate without cooperation across party lines. His willingness to share the credit and his history as a serious senator who wants to make laws, not headlines, encourage Republicans to work with him.
Ted Kennedy has been a lightning rod for conservatives. Why does he draw so much criticism?
Kennedy has been the symbol of liberalism ever since his brother Robert died. When you add Chappaquiddick and other personal failings, that has made him the perfect foil for Republican fund-raising letters, or television ads assailing some Democrat as his ally. His critics see him as an advocate of big government and excessive federal spending, to be sure. The same could be said of many other Democrats — but none nearly as well known as he is.
How has Kennedy continued in public life, in the face of his family’s many tragedies, and his own problems?
I think the only time Ted seriously considered dropping out of public life was after Robert’s assassination. He talked of doing things like buying a newspaper and even of running a sailboat charter company. I think the obligation of public service as a means of repayment for the privileges a rich man enjoyed was a lasting part of his consciousness, and if there was a single lesson his father Joseph P. Kennedy taught the family, that was it.
But that explains his dedication more than it explains his perseverance after the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, and two other relatives to whom he was especially close: Steve Smith, his brother-in law, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., his nephew, not to mention his own near-death (and lifelong back pain) from an airplane crash, a bad marriage, and two children (Teddy and Kara) suffering from cancer.
The element in Kennedy that I think explains how he has carried on despite tragedy is something that is only rarely mentioned — his religious faith. That was his mother’s interest, not his father’s. At Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s funeral in Boston in 1995 he quoted her:
“The most important thing in human life is faith. If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence and leave me with but one gift, I would ask for faith — for with faith in Him and His goodness, mercy and love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and be happy.”
Ted Kennedy has often failed to keep the Commandments. But he has kept the faith.
Beyond his parents’s influences, were any of his brothers and sisters major forces in his life?
Ted was so much younger than his brothers that they were never childhood playmates. Jack was his godfather and his idol, and read to him and encouraged Ted to read biography. Ted was the nominal campaign manager when Jack was re-elected to the Senate in 1958, and Jack looked after Ted’s career and his run for Jack’s old Senate seat in 1962. They were probably closest in the 11 months when Ted was a senator and Jack was president, especially that summer when their wives and children were away and Ted spent many evenings at the White House. Ted was a sounding board for Jack, not an adviser but someone with whom he could unwind. Ted recalls his brother sitting with him on the White House’s Truman balcony, overlooking the South Lawn, and warning him not to put too much trust in generals.
Bob and Ted Kennedy were senators together from 1965 until 1968. Ted was made for the Senate; Bob found its procedures and pomposity trying. But Bob, the elder, was the leader, especially in his growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. Ted was not an enthusiast about Bob running for president, but when he decided to run, Ted traveled ceaselessly to campaign for him — and was crushed by Bob’s assassination, though he somehow pulled himself together to deliver a magnificent eulogy:
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He should be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
Both his brothers had causes which Ted took up after their deaths. From Jack he took an interest in fairer immigration policies and a commitment to nuclear disarmament and improved relations with the Soviet Union, whose leaders he met even in the worst days of the Cold War. From Bob he inherited an outrage over how Americans went hungry and how Mexican farm workers and American Indians were treated.
His commitment to better health care also has its roots in the family, but in a very different way. His sister Rosemary was mentally retarded. Ted said years later that her condition was the first influence pointing him toward his career-long interest in national health insurance.
Why doesn’t Kennedy play a more active role in Democratic presidential politics today — as advocate, if not as candidate?
There are no kingmakers in American politics any more. Kennedy has endorsed Massachusetts Democrats when they ran for President (Michael Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and John Kerry in 2003). In 2000 he campaigned hard for Al Gore in the primaries, and in 1984 he made an effort to reconcile Walter Mondale and his rival, Gary Hart. But I think he sees his place to influence the nation as the Senate. I wrote of him there as deserving “recognition not just as the leading Senator of his time, but as one of the greats in its history, wise in the workings of this singular institution, especially in its demand to be more than partisan to accomplish much…. A son of privilege, he has always identified with the poor and the oppressed. The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits, but sails against the wind.”