The Lion of the Senate would expect his opposition to roar.
If you grow up in Massachusetts, as I did, and you are of a certain age — there was no time without the Kennedys.
My father, who was a conservative Republican City Councilman holding Calvin Coolidge’s seat on the Northampton City Council, loved to tell his favorite JFK story. Dad would chaperone kids from Northampton High School when they went to Washington for a school trip. They were scheduled to meet with Senator John F. Kennedy, but kids being kids, the group wasn’t ready and Dad had time to kill. JFK invited him to the Senate restaurant for a cup of coffee.
The two, alone, got their coffee and sat down for a considerable period of time to talk Massachusetts politics. When it was time to go — JFK asked if Dad could pick up the check. He had no cash on him.
The story always got Dad a laugh, but there was more here than met the eye. In 1952, when Congressman JFK was challenging Republican icon Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, my conservative parents had voted for Kennedy. Why? It was my first understanding of the intramurals between conservatives and “moderates” or “liberals” in the GOP. It seems that the liberal Senator Lodge had gone out of his way to lead the moderates’ Eisenhower victory over “Mr. Republican” — the conservative Ohio Senator Robert Taft — for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination. A lot of Massachusetts Republicans, Taft supporters, took out their wrath on Lodge by voting for JFK. In the midst of the Eisenhower landslide that November, Congressman Kennedy scored an upset with help from a lot of conservative votes. And so began in 1952 the hold of one Massachusetts Senate seat by the Kennedys — Jack and Ted - in almost unbroken perpetuity from that day to this.
I first saw Teddy as he was campaigning for senator in the crisp, fall air of an October, 1962 rally in neighboring Greenfield. The sight was riveting for a kid. Nighttime, thousands of people in the town square, bright lights, Ted Kennedy, sounding and looking like his brother the President, forefinger jabbing the air. The excitement was palpable.
A year later, I got to meet him. Playing tennis at a resort in the Berkshires my father managed, he was with the historian James McGregor Burns. A picture was promised as soon as he cleaned up. The photo, still in good shape with accompanying autograph, shows in the summer of 1963 a very handsome 30-year-old Teddy next to a suit and tied eleven year old who was clearly agog.
I was well on my way to my youthful engagement with the American left, to my father the Goldwater/Nixon guy’s tolerant chagrin. A year after that, JFK’s assassination not even a year old, my hometown awakened to the news that Teddy’s plane had crashed during the night on its way to the Democratic State Convention in Springfield. The pilot and a Kennedy aide had been killed, and Teddy and Indiana Senator Birch Bayh (father of Senator Evan Bayh) were in the local hospital, Teddy with a broken back. I hightailed it over there on my shiny red bike to see a remarkable sight over the next few days. There was Bobby. Then Jackie. Eunice. Joan. The entire clan had descended on our town. Somewhere I have my color pictures of Bobby walking the lawn in some sort of shell-shocked silence.
Time moved on. There was the six hours of standing in line at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York as a teenager to touch the flag on Bobby’s casket. And then the slow, sloooooooow motion move right, Reaganized at last.
May, 1998. The opening of the Ronald Reagan building in Washington. Cocktails and dinner, the requisite black tie. I walk into the private cocktail party filled with Reaganites. I knew almost everyone. Yet over by the bar, standing alone, (and yes, sober as a judge for the acerbic amongst my brethren) was — Ted Kennedy. The Reagan building was in fact the last piece of the puzzle of the drive to make Pennsylvania Avenue the grand Main Street of America’s capital that had begun on JFK’s inauguration day. The story went that as he rode down the parade route, JFK — and particularly Jackie — were so appalled at the ratty condition of the buildings on the street that a move was launched to redevelop it, restoring old buildings and putting up new ones. It had taken four decades to accomplish. As fate would have it, the last building wound up being named the Ronald Reagan Building. So Teddy was there for opening night, the proverbial political thorn among the roses, to celebrate.
Over I went to chat. Nancy Reagan breezed by with a happy “Hi Ted.” So, says Teddy, what exactly brought me there? I told him I worked as a political aide in the Reagan White House. He rolled his eyes with a twinkle, laughing. But then the conversation turned serious. I told him that I had once given money (it was a measly hundred bucks, I think I left that out) to a memorial for his brother Bobby. That got his attention! Since we were in the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, with Ken Starr in the news every day (and possibly there that night), Teddy and all kinds of liberals were raging about out of control special prosecutors. I made the point that I agreed — but where were they when all those prosecutors were running wild in the Reagan-Bush era? “Your brothers inspired so many people to come here, myself included, Senator,” I said. “Nobody who works in government is entitled to the job. But what’s the point in inspiring kids to come to Washington if, when they get here, someone they work for or they themselves make some dumb mistake and spend years of their life and money they don’t have fighting some special prosecutor gone wild? What kind of idealism is that? Even your brother’s administration couldn’t have survived this kind of thing.” He was clearly taken aback. Eventually, I could see others wanted to chat so I let him go. But he smiled that smile — and as I recall, I think he came around, eventually going along in a bipartisan group that finally killed the idea of lawyers with unlimited budgets and endless time regularly prosecuting every administration for some trumped up political reason. Not coincidentally destroying the lives of a lot of innocent young people who served in them.
The last time I encountered him it was during a fight over the Bush 43 nomination of a Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge. Holding no office of any kind beyond friend to the nominee, a Reagan appointee who was being elevated from the district court, I had plunged in to help because I knew the nominee — Judge Brooks Smith — well and knew the process. The ins and arcane outs of a judicial nomination. Judge Smith, deservedly respected in his home Western Pennsylvania, was caught up in the whirlwind of a Washington judicial food fight. We had to get at least one vote in the 2002-Democrat controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. There was not much chance to get Teddy’s vote, I didn’t think. In fact, as I would later write, I think one of the black marks on his Senate copybook was his treatment of Robert Bork and the “Borkification” of the judicial confirmation process.
Be that as it may, my youthful Kennedy enthusiasm surfaced. What did I want from Teddy? I wanted him to personally spend time on this nomination, not just staff it out and read a couple briefing papers cribbed from special interest groups. To really know something about the nominee he would probably vote against. To live up to that Kennedy idealism I had believed as a kid.
As it happened my friend the judge had a friend on the bench who was a friend of Teddy’s. Operating under the old theory that it’s better to apologize than ask permission, without saying anything to the nominee, I called the judicial friend shared by Teddy and Judge Smith, introduced myself and said I just wanted Teddy to pay attention. To do the right thing. The long and the short of it is the judge felt he couldn’t call a Senator on this kind of matter. He paused. But, he said, were Senator Kennedy to call him…
Taking the hint, I got the judge’s message to Teddy through the Senator’s fellow Judiciary Committee member and friend Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. Without missing a beat, I was told, Senator Kennedy called the judge who was his friend as well as Judge Smith’s. Within a day or two, the nominee’s fax machine started humming with a list of questions from Senator Kennedy. This behind the scenes questioning went back and forth, totally removed from the canned and (as I suspected) interest group–supplied questions coming from other Democrats on the committee.
The answers did not persuade. But at the end, Senator Kennedy called his judge friend and said he couldn’t vote for the nominee — yet he was sure the nominee was going to make it anyway. The nominee did — Judge Smith sits today on the Third Circuit confirmed by three votes, all Democrats, but not Teddy. On the other hand, there was no borking of Judge Smith from Ted Kennedy, something I was told his Democratic colleagues noticed. Somewhere my 11-year-old self felt vindicated.
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