Another Perspective

Honoring Teddy By Opposing Health Care

The Lion of the Senate would expect his opposition to roar.

By 8.27.09

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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.

The last time I saw him was a year or so ago, walking through the Dirksen Senate Office Building, accompanied by a clutch of aides and deep in conversation. I resisted the urge to say something, but the visual contrast between the man I saw that day and the man I first met that summer day in 1963 was startling.

With one exception. The smile was still there.

We all are making this earthly journey, and suffer the fates and frailties of being human along the way. Ted Kennedy's were generally always in the spotlight. Sometimes I think that the absolute worst disservice done to him was the rush to protect him from the consequences of his actions in the Chappaquiddick affair. In July of 1969, Kennedy-mania was still riding high. The emotional impact of the assassination of his two brothers, a year and six years distant then, had not yet subsided. Indeed, the very weekend of the accident coincided with America's first landing on the moon, with a rapt nation and world glued to television images not just of the moon but of JFK -- his challenge to go to the moon replayed over and over again. But it was clear that Ted Kennedy's actions had cost the life of a young woman -- and also clear that had anyone else been in that situation they would have faced sterner consequences with the law. Certainly, had that someone-else also been a sitting U.S. Senator, that career would have ended quickly.

Life teaches us all, and we all try and figure out in some way what it is we learn from those other lives we encounter. Certainly that was true of Teddy Kennedy, who managed the not inconsiderable accomplishment of making friends with his opponents, even being loved by many of them, while being a tough leader of the opposition.

For me, in a political sense, moving from a Kennedy-crazed kid to a Reaganite conservative, what I learned from Ted Kennedy are two things.

First, his liberalism wound up helping to make me a focused conservative. If you were going to combat the ideas he had you needed first to know your own, and know them well. It wasn't enough to think him wrong -- and by extension his supporters -- you had to understand why he was wrong. Then, with all the zest and zeal you can manage, just sail into the teeth of the opposition, just as Ted Kennedy did. He certainly did that, and expected no less from his opponents.

Waiting to join the White House staff, I remember President Reagan heading over to Teddy's house to raise funds for the John F. Kennedy Library. The President gave a wonderfully Reagan-esque speech, crafted in part I believe by Peggy Noonan. Somewhere along the line, in appreciation, Ted Kennedy gave Ronald Reagan an eagle bookend that belonged to JFK and had sat on the famous Resolute desk that both men had occupied in the Oval Office. Reagan, ever the gracious patriot, had accepted the invitation in tribute to a former president whom he had opposed in life, a president who had been unable to raise funds for his own presidential library because of the tragedy of his death. There is a wonderful picture of Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy admiring the bookend, the photo itself a tribute to a pair of legendary American ideological bookends.

That picture sums up for me what the best of politics should be in America. The well thought out ideas, the fearless willingness to do political combat, pulling no punches. And, as President Reagan always liked to say, after six o'clock, it was time to get together and lift a glass to friendship.

As with us all, Ted Kennedy's life will speak for itself. But here in this corner, on the occasion of his death, condolences go to his family -- for whom he was such an amazing patriarch. As with all figures in history, his legacy will be debated for eternity. The legacy I most appreciated was the ever-present idealism, the commitment to his principles -- and the lasting lesson that you should not just find your principles but fight for them as vigorously as he did for his.

Right about now, Ronald Reagan is welcoming Ted Kennedy home. And after the pleasantries, I have no doubt Reagan is saying, "Teddy, about that health care reform, well…"

Rest in peace, Senator.

Now, as to that health care business that the rest of us have to settle? It would be both untrue to the facts and unwise in the moment to tiptoe around the truth that one of the things Senator Kennedy took great joy in -- and was in fact a connoisseur of -- was hardball politics. He reveled in it. He gave full political measure to his political opponents and expected nothing less in return. Senator Kennedy's death is already being used by his allies as a reason to support the Obama version of health care. Wherever he is at this moment, the Senator is doubtless cheering them on.

But to be really true to the Kennedy view of politics, he would expect from his conservative friends nothing but the best opposition to this in what he knew to be a fierce debate. He would expect -- demand -- a sharply reasoned and passionately delivered conservative response.

For conservatives to be intimidated into silence on this issue out of respect for Senator Kennedy would show, as Senator Kennedy himself would understand, nothing but disrespect to the idealism he cherished and the political clash of ideas he loved. The Lion of the Senate became that because he roared.

So now should the opposition to Senator Kennedy's position -- President Obama's position on health care -- roar. Loudly.

Ted Kennedy would expect no less.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.