Ted was the Kennedy we saw grow old and die, and it is easiest to remember him for his last decade or two, when he was acknowledged to be a great senator. And, indeed, he did not deserve that status until he abandoned the pursuit of the presidency after 1980.
But in his earliest years in the Senate — when some dismissed him as a playboy or as not very smart — he showed the instincts of a natural in that peculiar body, instincts that later combined with experience to produce legislation on education, health, labor and civil rights that affected hundreds of millions of American lives.
Two episodes illustrate his early grasp of what the Senate required to get things done.
In 1965, his third year in office, he was senior to his older brother Robert, then a newly elected senator from New York, on the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. One day they sat through a hearing, waiting for senior senators to finish their questions. Like a schoolboy bored in class, Robert passed Ted a note: “Is this the way I become a good senator — sitting here and waiting my turn?” Ted scribbled, “Yes.” Then Robert asked, “How many hours do I have to sit here to be a good senator?” Ted replied, “As long as necessary, Robbie.”
“As long as necessary” could have been Ted’s motto. Perseverance is critical in a body configured for delay and inaction.
The other essential trait in the Senate is working across party lines. These days it is necessary to prevent or defeat filibusters on almost everything. That was less true when Mr. Kennedy came to the Senate; filibusters were reserved for matters of great importance, like civil rights. Mr. Kennedy just had the strategic sense that getting a majority in those days required some Republican votes to make up for losses among conservative Southern Democrats.
Long before Orrin Hatch, his most durable partner, came along, Mr. Kennedy found Republican allies. One of the most surprising was President Richard Nixon, who supported a Kennedy measure in 1971 to create the National Cancer Institute. But Nixon exacted a price that most senators would not have paid. An intermediary, the New York banker Benno Schmidt, was told that Mr. Kennedy’s name had to come off the bill for Nixon to support it. He worried that Kennedy would refuse. But Ted said, as Schmidt told me years later, “Oh, hell, that’s no problem.” So, formally at least, the chief Senate sponsor of the cancer bill was Peter Dominick, Republican of Colorado.
That may be an extreme example of the principle that great things can be done if you don’t care who gets the credit (a notion attributed variously to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harry Truman, George C. Marshall and Ronald Reagan). But over the years those occasional Republican allies — Hugh Scott on campaign finance; Strom Thurmond on crime; Bob Dole and John Danforth on civil rights; Judd Gregg, John Boehner and Michael Enzi on education; and Jacob Javits, Nancy Kassebaum and Orrin Hatch on health — have often received more of the credit for passing a bill than Mr. Kennedy did. He didn’t seem to mind.
Three legislative steps stand out in the period from 1963 until Robert’s death in 1968, when Ted was still just the Other Kennedy and not much considered in terms of presidential ambition.
In 1965, he led an effort to ban the poll tax as part of the Voting Rights Act. He barely lost, and was widely praised for his mastery of the legal and constitutional arguments. It was another 15 years before he became the acknowledged leader of Congressional forces on civil rights, but that was the first step toward that pre-eminence on what he told me in 1992 was the “defining aspect of the American political experience: who we are or are not going to be.”
In 1966, Mr. Kennedy took the first step on the issue that has dominated his career — health care — by winning a $51 million appropriation to create 30 community health centers. Because Mr. Kennedy also fought off Reagan administration efforts to kill federal aid for the program, today there are more than 1,200 of these centers serving poor communities.
In 1967, he teamed with Howard Baker, then a freshman Republican senator, to block an effort led by Baker’s father-in-law, Everett Dirksen, to thwart judicial reapportionment decisions by establishing a very loose standard of how equal districts had to be. They not only won in the Senate; they then managed to defeat a House-Senate conference report that abandoned the Senate position — a rare accomplishment for two new senators. As David Broder of The Washington Post wrote, “Defeating bad legislation, as Kennedy and Baker have done, is every bit as difficult as passing a good bill, but not nearly so long remembered.”
Robert’s assassination in 1968 made Ted an inevitable presidential potential, and Mary Jo Kopechne’s death at Chappaquiddick the next year ultimately foreclosed on the possibility. Ted’s accomplishments as a senator in the years since have included lowering the voting age to 18, outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War (which he initially supported), Meals on Wheels and airline and trucking deregulation.
From defending the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights measures against the Reagan administration and the Supreme Court to passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, he fulfilled his commitment to what he called the “great unfinished business of America.” He never achieved universal health care — in his words, “the cause of my life” — but from AIDS treatment to insurance that can be carried from job to job to Medicare drug benefits to insuring millions of children, he saw that many more Americans got the health care his own family could easily afford.
Longevity, with the privileges of seniority, certainly helped him accomplish all he did. Just two other senators served longer, and neither Strom Thurmond nor Robert Byrd approaches his record of achievement. Too often, though, the case is made that Ted Kennedy’s career had two parts: his early years almost trivial; the decades after his failed bid for the White House, triumphal. But from the beginning, he showed the skill and passion that bloomed into the successes that put him in the top rank of American senators.
Adam Clymer, a former Washington correspondent for The Times and the author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.