Ted Kennedy’s five-decade Senate career spanned 10 presidencies, starting with his brother’s 1,000 days in office through Barack Obama’s first year.
That longevity – which counts for a lot in the U.S. Senate –allowed Kennedy to leave a lasting mark on shaping landmark laws on civil rights, health and education, from the passage of voting rights in the mid 1960s to the current debate on health insurance being mandated as a right for all Americans.
The current bill coming out of Kennedy’s committee on insuring the uninsured – “the cause of his life” –will undoubtedly emerge in some compromised fashion with Ted Kennedy’s name on it.
The Kennedy Health Care Act (it’s not called that yet but will be), marked up by his friend, U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, will be made law so long as the Democratic majority finds the will to do reconciliation and blows off the phony bipartisanship of the “gang of six” and the likes of Joe Lieberman.
Much of the commentary on the passing of the last of a generation of Kennedy brothers will focus on the “mystique” and the impression that Ted Kennedy was kind of royalty, not to be challenged at the ballot box. It’s true that Kennedy was never seriously challenged in the Democratic Party. There was the first run in 1962 when he was taken on by Edward McCormack, Jr. in an Irish brawl of a primary during the Kennedy presidency, but nothing ever since. Save for a well-financed run by former MA Governor Mitt Romney, the hapless Republicans have mostly served up a succession of patsies against Edward Kennedy for 46 years despite the Senator’s personal travails and unsuccessful run for the presidency.
While his name and money gave him a head start, Kennedy and his operatives rarely took the grassroots for granted. They always seemed to remember former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s advice that “all politics is local.” That entailed taking care of constituents’ individual issues and old-fashioned politicking that has been the trademark of Kennedy’s well-honed home state operation for all these years.
My only encounters with Ted Kennedy nearly 40 years ago illustrated that Kennedy’s longevity came not just from his privileged life, but never forgetting the electoral base that would turn him into the “lion of the Senate.” They came as part of my job as a reporter for the Lynn Sunday Post between 1972 and 1974 when I was just out of college.
A regular part of the Kennedy itinerary would be to get around to cities and towns, to address high school assemblys and civic groups and visit the local press, including the tiny newsroom of a small weekly on the North Shore just outside of Boston. There, I simultaneously held the titles of city hall and state house reporter and was the paper’s national affairs correspondent when Kennedy came to town. These two or three annual newsroom interviews were 30-minute one on ones where I, next to a Royal manual typewriter, would ask the questions and Kennedy would give his well-rehearsed take on Nixon impoundments, Watergate and the tough fights for progressive legislation during a Republican administration.
We then would all pose for a picture with local politicians in tow before Kennedy moved on to the next town.
I think Kennedy knew when I met him briefly so long ago and to his last days that the local politicking he grew to enjoy and did every year counted for the very long run that he had in the U.S. Senate. It’s a politician’s chore that may be easy to forget after you’ve been in Congress for a few years with all the trappings of office. But Kennedy never forgot. [Photo from: Lynn Sunday Post 1972]