Ted Kennedy: A Senate Giant, Partisan Hero and Legislative Master

Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
Resident Scholar
Norman J. Ornstein

The big story of this past week had nothing to do with the presidential campaign. It was the giant scare that rippled through the political community and around the country over Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) seizure and hospitalization. Kennedy appears to be feisty and in good spirits, and one hopes--despite the subsequent diagnosis of a brain tumor--that he will be back in fine fettle in the Senate and perhaps on the campaign trail soon.

Whether or not he is, the scare has prompted me to reflect on Ted Kennedy and his career, and what he and it mean for the Senate and the political process. Let me start with the bottom line: At 76, with 46 years in the Senate, Kennedy is one of the giants in American politics of the 20th century, one of a handful of the best Senators in that period. From health policy to education to civil rights to criminal justice, Kennedy has had a hand in much of the major legislation in the postwar era.

There is, of course, a great irony here. Ted Kennedy was the afterthought among the Kennedy brothers, from Joe Jr. through Jack through Bobby. When he got elected to the Senate in 1962, to fill the seat left vacant by his brother Jack, few thought he would distinguish himself in any way in politics. He was the subject of widespread ridicule--the undistinguished brother moving up high on the ladder of politics only because of his name. No one back then would have said that if three Kennedy brothers served in the Senate, the one who would emerge as a giant would be Ted.

Kennedy is an ideologue, a strong and passionate liberal. But his ideological passion is tempered by his desire to make something happen, and his talent for building coalitions to make it so.

Of course, Kennedy's career was not simply a trajectory upward. His Senate experience, and his life, have been filled with ups and downs. He did build steady credibility in his first term in the Senate, culminating in his election as Majority Whip--but that trajectory ended dismally after a single Congress, when the post-Chappaquiddick fallout enabled Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to win the post by a narrow margin (settled by a hospital-bed proxy vote from the fading Georgia Democratic Sen. Richard Russell delivered to Byrd just before the Democratic Caucus met to vote.)

Kennedy responded to that setback by redoubling his efforts as a legislator, building steady credibility both for his inside efforts and his eloquence as the spokesman for liberal causes. Other setbacks--failed forays into presidential politics in 1976, and with his challenge to incumbent Jimmy Carter (D) in 1980--had similar results. So, too, did the many tragedies that hit his personal life and family.

What has made Kennedy a great Senator? First is his hard work--incredibly hard work. When I worked in the Senate in 1970, I got to know some of the Kennedy staffers, and heard the tales of his leaving at the end of the day with two legal-size briefcases packed with memos and files--and returning early the next morning with the memos and files heavily annotated with his handwritten comments and observations (all this while he was leading a, shall we say, colorful social life).

Second is his great staff. Naturally, Kennedy had no trouble attracting all-stars to work for him; the Kennedy name alone is magic. But attracting big names or talented people to work for you is not enough. Using their talents to maximize one's legislative clout and reach, creating an atmosphere where people want to stay or come back, is not a given. Let's face it--many acclaimed Senators have lousy staffs, or revolving doors, or good staffs that are underused or misused. In an earlier column, I mentioned Kennedy's legislative director, Kerry Parker, whom I met back in 1970 and is still working for him. Imagine the advantage that comes from having someone at your side with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Senate over the past 40 years, who knows the policy world inside out--and has given up the chance to make 10 times his salary outside the Senate to continue to work for Ted Kennedy.

Third is his drive to find solutions to national problems. Kennedy is an ideologue, a strong and passionate liberal. But his ideological passion is tempered by his desire to make something happen, and his talent for building coalitions to make it so. And that leads to the fourth reason--his willingness to bond with ideological opposites and longtime foes to get results.

Kennedy and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) on criminal justice; Kennedy and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on health, AIDS and many other issues; Kennedy and President Bush (!) on education and, for a while, on Medicare prescription drugs; Kennedy and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on immigration; Kennedy and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) on drug safety--the list is almost endless, with many of the early alliances recounted in Adam Clymer's magisterial biography of Kennedy. He has taken plenty of grief from his liberal friends over some of these alliances (as Hatch and other conservatives have taken grief for consorting with the enemy). But he has made the alliances work time after time, even in this era of poisonous partisanship and deep ideological division.

Every Senator, indeed every legislator, should take lessons from how Kennedy has operated in the Senate. All of us should appreciate what he has done for the country. And we should all hope that he will continue those efforts well past his coming half-century mark in the body.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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