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How did John McCain and Ted Kennedy find common ground? ‘They listened’

Sen. John McCain’s death on Saturday, nine years to the day after friend Sen. Ted Kennedy died of the same type of brain cancer, has drawn parallels between the two political icons, who were known for their occasional bipartisan efforts and their shared sentiments. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the senator’s widow, joins Judy Woodruff to talk about their friendship.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier, we reported on mourners gathering in Phoenix today to pay their final respects to Arizona Senator John McCain, lying in state in the Capitol Building.

    His death on Saturday, nine years to the day after his friend Senator Ted Kennedy died from the same type of brain cancer, has drawn parallels between the two men known for their occasional bipartisan efforts and their shared sentiment that a fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed.

    A short while ago, I spoke with Senator Kennedy's widow, Vicki Kennedy, about their friendship. And I started by asking her what Senator John McCain meant to her.

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    It was a real privilege to know John McCain.

    And I know my husband, Ted, felt the same way. John was a very, very special friend. He was a loyal friend. He was a kind friend. He was a wonderful senator. And I really — I'm going to miss him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You — I want to ask you about their relationship.

    But, first, I want to I want to show our audience just a little bit of what Senator McCain had to say at the memorial service for your husband, the late Senator Kennedy, in 2009. Here's just a part of that.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    He took the long view. He never gave up.

    And, though, on most issues, I very much wished he would give up, he taught me to be a better senator.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vicki Kennedy, they had an interesting relationship, didn't they?

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    They most certainly did. They most certainly did.

    I think, at the very beginning, they didn't like each other very much. They both were very fond of saying that. They loved saying that, in fact.

    And John said that if you — before you like someone, you had to respect them. And I think that's very true. And they came to respect each other, and then to become very, very good friends.

    I recall one very interesting time in the very early 1990s where John and Ted were at odds on an issue on the floor of the United States Senate. And they had, let's say, heated words right off the floor out of earshot. But, as they walked off, and they patted each other on the back, and they said, that's pretty good, isn't it?

    And they just — they started a banter, which they both did so well. They both had a terrific sense of humor, and it was the beginning of sowing seeds of a very special friendship.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But we should say their politics were very different. I mean, your husband was a…

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    Oh, their politics could not be more different.

    I mean, John was a passionate conservative. He was a passionate Republican. Teddy was a passionate Democrat. He was a passionate — he was a passionate progressive.

    But they were able to look for those areas where they could agree. They look for those areas where they could find common ground. One of those areas was in immigration. They both knew that we had a broken immigration system, and they wanted to find a way to resolve that problem.

    And so they would meet every morning with a group of other senators. They would meet at 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning, and they'd start to talk and listen and try to see where they could come together.

    I mean, I thought that was an extraordinary thing at — where they were looking for a way to move the issue forward, to find that resolution. And neither of them got what they wanted completely, but they — they got out of their comfort zone a little bit on the compromise legislation that they put forward.

    But they also knew that they were advancing the ball, that they were helping to resolve the problem. And I know, from Ted's point of view, and in talking to John as well, one of the great disappointments of both of their careers was that they were unable to finally get that legislation passed by both houses and signed.

  • Judy Woodruff:


    I think — I asked you this because I think maybe it's a lesson for today. Why do you think they were able to work together on an issue like immigration? And there were others.

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    I think because they listened to each other. I think because they did have respect.

    They both said that, we all love — we love this country. We just have a different way, maybe, of getting there to resolve an issue. But if you listen to each other, you might just find that nugget of common ground.

    Judy, I think one of — there's so many reasons that we're hearing this outpouring of love and affection for John McCain this week. And there — he so deserves it. He was such a patriots. He's a man who served his country with distinction.

    It's also because he was a person who wasn't afraid to reach out and talk to people on the other side of the aisle.

    I was struck, even in this last year of his life, how he stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said that the greatest moments of his public life were when he worked with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle to advance an issue.

    I think there's a real lesson for all of us here, because he did that, first and foremost, I think, by sitting down and listening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Could you — that's what I wanted to ask you, because people look at that. And they — I mean, some people would say, why is that so hard for other senators, other political figures to do?

    What was it about John McCain, do you think?

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    I think he had lived life. He had seen a lot. He believed in country first. And he had served our country honorably.

    And he was always thinking about that. He just had a big picture view. And getting a problem resolved was the paramount thing. It wasn't party first. It was country first.

    And he was able to just try to reach compromise in that way, not to compromise his values, but to — but to find a way to find common ground. And those are two very different things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was just going to say that I think torture, an issue that came up after the invasion of Iraq, that came up as an issue, and your husband and Senator McCain, who, unlike most other Republicans, said, this something I can't — we can't stand for.

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    Well, John knew really painfully and from firsthand experience what torture was.

    And he felt that it was a violation of our American values to have torture as a tool of war. And Teddy was vehemently opposed to torture, and that was a place where they found common ground.

    So, in Armed Services Committee hearings, they would both be on the same side of that issue, even to the point of exchanging notes with each other from their — their briefing sheets and just passing them back and forth, because they were both — there was no pride of authorship.

    It was about, how do we resolve this really fundamental issue that we're facing? How do we solve this problem? How do we stay true to our American values?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vicki Kennedy, you stay close to Washington. Do you see other senators today working across the aisle, the way your husband and John McCain did?

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    I actually do, Judy. I actually do.

    And I think it may not make the front pages all the time, but I see a lot of outreach. I'm really pleased that there are those seeds of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats looking for ways to work together.

    I remain optimistic. We're in difficult times, but I really believe that things will cool. I think they have to, and that we will go back to a time when we go back to regular order, when we have Republicans and Democrats working together more. But we're starting to see it already.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Senator Edward Kenned, remembering him, remembering John McCain, thank you very much.

  • Victoria Reggie Kennedy:

    Thank you, Judy.

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