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The Kennedys’ Senator

On health care and a host of other issues, Paul Kirk is all in the family.

By 9.25.09

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Michael Dukakis has lost again. The only man in American politics who could make the avuncular George H.W. Bush seem like a decisive political leader and larger-than-life Texan had his eyes on the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat. But Mr. Dukakis won't be coming to Washington.

Yesterday Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced he was choosing former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime Kennedy family confidante Paul G. Kirk. Jr. to hold the seat until the Jan. 19 special election. The selection works out well for everyone: the Bay State Democrats currently running in the special election, who don't have to worry about Kirk deciding to compete with them, the national Democrats who reclaim their 60th Senate vote, and an Obama administration in need of another loyal party apparatchik to rubber stamp its legislative agenda.

Works out well for everyone except former Governor Dukakis, that is. He won't get to cap a career spent riding in a tank, claiming the Reagan boom as his personal "Massachusetts miracle," and then watching the state's bond rating collapse like a house of cards as the economy turned and rendered his chronic overspending impractical. Deval Patrick, who has already done too much to remind Massachusetts voters of why they stopped electing Democratic governors for 16 years after Dukakis left office, wisely decided Senator Dukakis would be a trip down memory lane too far.

Just because Paul Kirk isn't as familiar a face as the former governor who put "Taxachusetts" on the map doesn't mean his appointment is a departure from the commonwealth's political traditions, however. Ted Kennedy is being temporarily replaced by the same process that delivered him his Senate seat in the first place.

Paul Kirk was by all accounts the Kennedy family's choice to fill the vacancy, just as the Kennedys handpicked a placeholder successor for John F. Kennedy in 1960 to pave the way for Ted's Senate run when he was constitutionally eligible two years later. As Daniel Flynn recently recounted in TAS, "President-elect Kennedy threatened to allow the incoming Republican governor to make the appointment if the outgoing Democrat didn't do his bidding." The result was a temporary Senate seat for JFK's former Harvard roommate.

Kirk is an appointee along the same lines. He spent eight years working on Ted Kennedy's staff. He is chairman of the JFK Library Foundation. He was master of ceremonies at an event honoring his predecessor the night before his funeral. "We need a vote and we need someone to do what the senator would have done. This is the most surefire way," one former Kennedy aide bluntly told the Boston Herald. "(Kirk) would turn to Kennedy's health-care staffers and say, ‘What do you want to do?'"

No doubt that explains why one of Ted Kennedy's final public acts was to lobby to restore the governor's power to make interim appointments to the U.S. Senate. That power was stripped by the state legislature in 2004, when Democrats on Beacon Hill worried that then-Gov. Mitt Romney would appoint a Republican interim senator if John Kerry was elected president. The law was changed five years ago with Kennedy's blessing. Now that a Democrat is governor, the legislature changed the law back, again with Kennedy's encouragement.

Governor Patrick admitted last week that President Barack Obama had urged Massachusetts pols to change the law back so the seat wouldn't be vacant until the special election. Why? He needs a party-line Democrat's vote on one of Kennedy's signature issues: expanding the federal government's role in health care. Obama also hopes that Kirk will turn to the late senator's health-care staffers and say, "What do you want to do?"

The Massachusetts Republican Party is seeking an injunction against Kirk's appointment to the Senate seat. The law changing Senate succession rules in the commonwealth doesn't take effect for 90 days. Governor Patrick had to claim an "emergency" to fill the vacancy now. "This is not an emergency," a GOP state legislator insisted to the Associated Press. But the odds are such resistance will prove futile.

For the first time in 47 years, Massachusetts is not represented by a senator named Kennedy. But the trend of being represented by Kennedys and Kennedy consiglieres is still going more than a half-century strong. It's almost enough to make you pine for Senator Michael Dukakis.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.