I was saddened this morning to learn of the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, after his long fight with brain cancer. Considered perhaps the most liberal member of the United States Senate — if not American politics — chances are good you had strong feelings about Kennedy, his politics, and his personal life, no matter which end of the political spectrum you were on. And obituaries today will likely be unable to discuss his political achievements — and they were many — without also bringing up his often rocky, and disappointing, personal shortcomings. That is, of course, life in politics.
When I started working on the Hill in 1990, Kennedy, nearing age 60 at that time, had already been serving as a Senator for longer than I had been alive. He was an institution in an institution, a brush with a piece of America’s mythic past. He was also a genuine political celebrity and he had that indescribable Kennedy magnetism. We used to joke that the strength of his charm was inversely proportional to your own political stance — that the more you disagreed with his politics, the more charmed you were by him in person. He would shake your hand with both hands, look you in the eye and call you by name. You were completely disarmed.
If you were opposed to his policies, Kennedy could infuriate you with his absolute determination to ram through his initiatives — and he led the charge on an awful lot of them, from civil rights to health care. But it might surprise you to know that Kennedy was also brilliant at something else: bipartisanship. He was so good at it, in fact, that you scarcely realized he was doing it. When he was preparing to introduce either a huge, complex or controversial piece of legislation, Kennedy had a knack for going out and finding a Republican cosponsor, sometimes an incredibly unlikely one who you wouldn’t normally even put in the same room with Kennedy, much less on a bill. It was much harder for Republicans to torpedo a Kennedy initiative on veterans’ health, for example, when his lead cosponsor was Republican Leader Bob Dole.
In the late 1990s, I worked on the Republican Senate HELP committee, where Kennedy was the ranking Democratic member of the committee. He hired smart staff and, more often than not, they were genuinely interested in helping reach an acceptable compromise on your legislation. We were able to easily approve child care tax credits, for example, because we had Kennedy’s staff on board from day one.
Of course, part of the fun of watching Kennedy work was watching Kennedy work. Like many members, once he got wound up on the floor of the Senate, he could be a shouter and a flailer, waving his arms madly as he all but shouted at the top of his lungs. His voice was easily imitated — and believe me, once the door was closed, even Democratic staff would sometimes drop into that familiar cadence, starting sentences with “Ayr, uh” in a way Kennedy himself really never did, but which made it all that much funnier. But Kennedy himself was in on the joke, and was smart enough to know that all those impressions only sealed his iconic reputation. (Fortunately for writers on The Simpsons, that accent is not trademarkable — otherwise, Mayor Quimby might sound like Comic Shop Guy.)
I’ll close with one of my favorite Kennedy stories, which didn’t happen to me, but should give you a feel for the kind of charm and reputation the man possessed: my friend Anne, who worked for Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming — one of nicest, and funniest members of Congress ever — had her mother coming to town. As part of her visit, Anne had arranged for her mother to have lunch with her Senator in the Senator’s Dining Room — a fairly exclusive and impressive place — then take a private tour of the Capitol, sit with the Senator in a committee meeting, and generally shadow Simpson as he worked throughout a typical day.
About a week after her mother had left, I was talking with Anne about the visit, and how impressed I was with all she had planned out. “What was your mother’s favorite part of the day?” I asked her. She scowled slightly, then laughed. “Her favorite part was an elevator ride in the Dirksen Building, when Senator Kennedy stood next to her.”
That was the Kennedy charm. Love it or hate it, you likely won’t see anything like it again.