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Kennedy beat the odds

By
August 26, 2009

In the quiet of a Capitol elevator, one of Edward M. Kennedy’s fellow senators asked whether the Massachusetts senator had plans for a family Thanksgiving away from the nation’s capital. No, he said shaking his head in reply, and mentioned something about visiting his brothers’ gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his half-century in the public glare, Kennedy was, above all, heir to a legacy — as well as a hero to liberals, a foil to conservatives, a legislator with few peers.

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."

He was 48, older than any of his brothers at the time of their deaths. He lived nearly three more decades, before succumbing to a brain tumor late Tuesday at age 77.

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That convention speech was a political summons, for sure. But to what?

Kennedy made plans to run for president again in 1984 before deciding against it. By 1988, his moment had passed and he knew it.

He turned his public energies toward his congressional career, now judged one of the most accomplished in the history of the Senate.

"I’m a Senate man and a leader of the institution," he said more than a year ago in an Associated Press interview. He left his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to pass Congress over a span of decades. Health care, immigration, civil rights, education and more. Republicans and Democrats alike lamented his absence as they struggled inconclusively in recent month with President Barack Obama’s health care legislation.

He was in the front ranks of Democrats in 1987 who torpedoed one of President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominees. "Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught about evolution," he said at the time.

It was a single sentence that catalogued many of the issues he — and Democrats — devoted their careers to over the second half of the 20th century.

A postscript: More than a decade later, President Clinton nominated a former Kennedy aide, Stephen Breyer, to the high court. He was confirmed easily.

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There were humiliations along the way, drinking and womanizing, coupled with the triumphs that the Kennedy image-makers were always polishing. After the 1980 presidential campaign, Camelot took another hit when he divorced. He later remarried, happily.

In later years came grumbling from fellow Democrats that his political touch had failed him, and that he was too eager to strike a deal with President George W. Bush on education and Medicare.

"I believe a president can make a difference," he said over and over in that campaign of 1980, at a time the country was suffering from crushing combination of high interest rates, inflation and unemployment.

But it wasn’t necessary to be a president to make a difference, or to try.

He once startled a Republican senator’s aide, tracking her down by phone in Poland, part of an attempt to complete a bipartisan compromise.

For years, he left the Capitol once a week to read to a student at a nearby public school as part of a literacy program.

When a longtime Senate reporter fell terminally ill, Kennedy dispatched one of his watercolors to her room in a nursing home, and cheered her with chatty phone calls.

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Kennedy took up painting in earnest after a plane crash that broke his back in the mid-1960s and led to a lengthy convalescence. Much of his work hangs in his Senate office, several seascapes or images of sailboats of the type he piloted in the waters off Cape Cod.

The walls of other rooms are filled with political and personal memorabilia, family photographs or letters or some combination of the two that hint at the passage of time and power.

In one room hangs a photo showing Kennedy and his siblings and parents in a family portrait taken in the 1930s, at a time their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was U.S. ambassador to England.

In another hangs a plaque from the USS John F. Kennedy, the Navy vessel commissioned in 1968 and named for the slain president.

In another, the letter he wrote his mother, Rose, teasingly accusing her of having covered up a deficiency in math. No, she wrote back firmly in pencil, she always got an A.

Elsewhere, this:

"To Dad. Thank you for helping me get ahold of that first rung," wrote his son, Patrick, after winning a seat in the Rhode Island Legislature in 1990. The parent had dispatched aides to Providence to help assure victory for the child, now an eighth-term member of Congress.

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There were other, far more public ways that Kennedy became the family standard bearer.

Robert Kennedy had spoken of the assassinated president at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Four years later, he, too, was dead, and this time the last surviving brother delivered the eulogy.

"My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," his voice trembled at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. "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."

A generation later, John Kennedy Jr., who had been a toddler when his father was in the White House, died in a small plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard. This eulogy invoked the words of William Butler Yeats, the poet: "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair. But like his father, he had every gift but the gift of years."

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"Thank you my friend for your many courtesies. If the world only knew," reads a letter hanging on one wall of the office. It came from Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, once the Senate’s top Republican.

As the most prominent liberal of his day, Kennedy was long an easy and popular target for Republicans. The automobile accident that resulted in the death of a young Pennsylvania woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drew snickers both before and after it shadowed his presidential campaign in 1980. Kennedy was driving the car in the accident at Chappaquiddick.

It is a cliche, yet true, that if his name was invaluable in Democratic fundraising, conservatives long ago discovered they could generate cash simply by telling donors they were doing battle with Kennedy.

Kennedy understood that, and knew how to turn it to his own advantage.

When a Moral Majority fundraising appeal somehow arrived at his office one day in the early 1980s, word leaked to the public, and the conservative group issued an invitation for him to come to Liberty Baptist College if he was ever in the neighborhood.

Pleased to accept, was the word from Kennedy.

"So I told Jerry (Falwell) and he almost turned white as a sheet," said Cal Thomas, then an aide to the conservative leader.

Dinner at the Falwell home was described as friendly.

Desert was a political sermon on tolerance, delivered by the liberal from Massachusetts.

"I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly?" Kennedy said from the podium that night. "There are those who do, and their own words testify to their intolerance."

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More than a quarter-century later, he was still eager to make a difference. At a critical point in the 2008 presidential race, he endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, then embarked on an ambitious schedule of campaign appearances.

He cast his endorsement in terms that linked Obama to the Kennedys.

"There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier," he said.

"He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party," Kennedy said.

"And John Kennedy replied: ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do. … It is time for a new generation of leadership.’"

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That endorsement came a few months before the seizure that signaled the presence of a deadly brain tumor. There were memorable public moments ahead, a surprise visit to the Senate to cast the decisive vote on a Medicare bill and, before that, a turn at the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

"As I look ahead, I am strengthened by family and friendship," he said there last summer. "So many of you have been with me in the happiest days and the hardest days. Together we have known success and seen setbacks, victory and defeat.

"But we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world," he said. "And I pledge to you, I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the United States Senate when we begin the great test."

His time in the Senate was growing short, though. He smiled broadly as he took his seat outdoors at Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, then suffered a seizure a few hours later at a luncheon inside the capital.

"He was there when the Voting Rights Act passed" in the mid-1960s, the nation’s first black president said moments later in his remarks. "And so I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now a part of me is with him. And I think that’s true for all of us."

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Generations of aides recall Kennedy telling them the biggest mistake of his career was turning down a deal that President Richard M. Nixon offered for universal health care. It seemed not generous enough at the time. Having missed the opportunity then, Kennedy spent the rest of his career hoping for an elusive second chance.

Now, some Democrats wonder privately if the party can learn from that lesson, and take what is achievable rather than risk everything by reaching for what it uncertain. Republicans and Democrats alike say Kennedy’s absence has affected the debate on Obama’s signature issue, with unknown consequences.

It was the issue that motivated him even after he was no longer able to travel to the Capitol to cast a vote. He called it "the cause of my life."

And in July, in a reflection on his own mortality, he worried that his precarious health might mean Massachusetts would have only one senator for a brief while, and Democrats would be handicapped as they tried to pass health care legislation.

After 47 years in the Senate — in a seat held by his brother before him — Kennedy urged a change in state law so the governor could appoint a temporary replacement "should a vacancy occur."