Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death ends an era in American politics

KennedyThe passing of U.S. Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy marks the end of a storied era in American political history.

He was one of history’s most towering senators, a skilled lawmaker who crafted scores of statutes that helped how children learn, how doctors treat the sick and how workers are paid and protected.

“He was the Henry Clay of the 20th century. He got the job done,” said Thomas Whelan, associate professor of social science at Boston University, citing the “Great Compromiser” of the mid-19th century.

Kennedy died shortly before midnight Tuesday at his home in Hyannisport, Mass., after battling brain cancer for more than a year. He was 77 years old.

Kennedy’s life was in many ways the story of American politics over two generations.

He was the youngest child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, last in line behind brothers groomed for the presidency. He lacked the polished charm of his brother John, who won the presidency in 1960, or the grit and fire of brother Bobby, who pursued the White House in 1968.

He virtually inherited John’s Senate seat upon turning 30 in 1962, and he rose fast. His first Senate speech announced his passionate support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and he was instrumental in pushing an overhaul of immigration law through the chamber a year later.

When Robert was assassinated in 1968, Ted became the heir to the family legacy. In January 1969, he upset veteran Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana to become majority whip, the Senate’s second-ranking position.

The close vote was a statement by the party’s liberal wing that Kennedy, who’d opposed the Vietnam War since 1967, was its undisputed leader and the frontrunner to challenge Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1972.

That scenario was shattered shortly after midnight on July 19, 1969, when the car he was driving sailed off a bridge and sank in a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Former Robert Kennedy campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne died in the accident. Edward Kennedy did not report the incident for nine hours, and six days later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene. He got a two-month suspended sentence, the minimum penalty, and went on national television to explain the series of events.

His true punishment was the damage to his career. In an era when the “silent majority” was holding “decency rallies” protesting the erosion of moral values in American life, Kennedy was a vivid symbol to many of all that had gone wrong.

“There was a sense he always got special treatment, and Chappaquiddick was part of that,” said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group. “Conservatives have this sense that he’s always held to a different standard.”

At the same time, Kennedy was quietly building a reputation in the Senate as someone who made the system work, negotiating, often successfully, with the Nixon administration on key domestic initiatives.

“He was getting things done. Think of Kennedy’s initiatives ? more spending on health and education, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, even wage and price controls. Nixon supported them,” recalled Alvin Felzenberg, a presidential historian.

Though he won re-election in 1970 by a landslide, Kennedy in early 1971 suffered embarrassment when West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd ousted him from his leadership post. Kennedy, it was said, didn’t pay enough attention to the small needs of fellow members ? and had become a tarred spokesman for his party.

But the family mystique was still very much alive. Kennedy’s middle-of-the-night introduction of nominee George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic nomination brought tears throughout the convention hall.

When Jimmy Carter’s presidency began to stumble in the late 1970s, many party leaders turned to Kennedy.

That period marked one of the few times the senator was publicly critical of a fellow Democrat. His contempt for Carter had been apparent for years. Carter, Kennedy felt, had not been true to so many ideals the party had fought for: health-insurance reform, funding for poverty programs and so on.

Kennedy ramped up the feud at the party’s December 1978 midterm conference, when he took direct aim at the president.

“The party that tore itself apart over Vietnam in the 1960s cannot afford to tear itself apart today over budget cuts in basic social programs,” Kennedy said. “There could be few more divisive issues for America and for our party than a Democratic policy for drastic slashes in the federal budget at the expense of the elderly, the poor, the black, the sick, the cities and the unemployed.”

As Carter’s political stature sank, Kennedy saw echoes of 1968, when brother Robert had taken on Lyndon Johnson.

Kennedy was prepared to declare his candidacy on Nov. 7, 1979, at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, but two events intervened three days earlier.

On Nov. 4, CBS aired a documentary on Kennedy by reporter Roger Mudd. He asked Kennedy about his shaky marriage, Chappaquiddick, and most memorably why he wanted to be president.

Kennedy’s vague, rambling answer haunted him throughout the campaign ? and offered a preview of the problems he faced in articulating his vision.

The same day Iranian militants seized more than 60 American hostages. Suddenly Carter’s domestic problems faded in the public mind and Americans rallied behind their president.

Carter conducted what became known as a “Rose Garden campaign,” refusing to leave the White House because he said he had to conduct the nation’s business from there. He avoided engaging Kennedy, as the senator careened from primary to primary, sometimes brilliantly evoking his brothers in speeches, other times sounding tired and confused.

They battled right up to the August convention, never really healing the schism they represented in their party. Kennedy’s convention speech conceding defeat but not failure is regarded as a classic, and a farewell address that would serve as a coda to 20 years of the brothers’ legacy to American life.

“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” he told the rapt audience. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

With that, he returned to the Senate to keep the dream alive.

His world changed dramatically after the 1980 election. Ronald Reagan, the symbol of so much of what Kennedy had fought throughout his career, became president. Republicans controlled the Senate for the first time in Kennedy’s tenure, and Kennedy’s liberal politics seemed thoroughly discredited.

He was no longer Judiciary Committee chairman; onetime segregationist Strom Thurmond now held the gavel. Instead of heading his cherished labor investigations subcommittee, he had to defer to the new chairman, freshman Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins of Florida.

Still, the Senate was a better fit than the Oval Office for his ambitions and personality.

“He became comfortable with the idea his role in life was to be the most effective legislator he could be,” said longtime aide Jim Manley.

Whelan noted that while John Kennedy was often aloof and Robert seemed to be “looking you in the eye and sizing you up,” the clubby ways of the Senate came naturally to Ted Kennedy.

“He had a natural way of coming across the room and asking about your wife and kids. He was a good backslapper,” Whelan said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, first saw those traits in 1981. Hatch, in only his fifth Senate year, found himself chairing the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Though Republicans had a 9 to 7 majority, two GOP members were moderate-to-liberal, and Hatch knew he’d have a hard time getting consensus.

“I went to Sen. Kennedy and said I would need help. And he helped,” Hatch recalled.

The diehard conservative from Utah became one of several GOP lawmakers who would team up with the liberal icon from Massachusetts. Kennedy and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., pushed legislation to make health insurance more portable, and he and Hatch won approval of a measure to broaden health insurance for children.

Ironically, the more effective Kennedy became, the more conservatives ? and comedians ? kept stinging him.

“Conservatives have raised more money in direct mail from criticizing Ted Kennedy than anyone, until the Clintons came along,” Felzenberg said.

He was at the forefront of his era’s major fights. He led the 1985 effort to pressure South Africa to end apartheid and the 1987 fight to stop confirmation of Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, branding him a “right-wing extremist.”

He was a leading critic of the Iraq war and the plan to create military tribunals to try alleged terrorists, evoking the lofty Kennedy style in September 2002, when Bush and even many Democrats were saying a war with Iraq was the patriotic thing to do.

“It is possible to love America,” Kennedy said, “while concluding that it is not now wise to go to war.”

While criticizing the Bush administration, Kennedy also worked with it. In 2001 he helped President Bush pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which set tough standards for public schools to follow in return for federal help.

But he was also quick to point out that Bush refused to fund the initiative.

“Sadly,” he said in 2007, “President Bush has yet to learn his lesson on leaving no child behind.”

Kennedy added extensively to his legacy during the Bush years. When Democrats regained control of the Senate in January 2007, he again became chairman of the Senate committee that handles health, labor and education issues, and he steered through Congress the first increase in the minimum wage in 10 years.

In 2008, he won approval of, and praised President Bush for signing, legislation giving students easier access to college loans. At the same time, he ripped into Bush for his management of the economy.

“The president continues to bail out Wall Street and help the oil industry reap even larger profits, while blocking needed relief for the American people,” Kennedy said.

He made that statement in late April. On May 17, he was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital after suffering a seizure and was found to have a malignant brain tumor.

A few days later, Kennedy, his wife and their dogs were sailing in his 50-foot schooner on Nantucket Sound.

That’s the Kennedy his friends and colleagues remember.

He was a survivor, one who would read the Hotline political briefing to see what jokes Johnny Carson or Jay Leno had made at his expense, then shrug.

He was a regular guy, happily married since 1992 to his second wife, Vicki Reggie, the cheery fellow who would walk around the Capitol with his Portugese water dog, Splash, or who dressed up at a Christmas party as Barney the dinosaur.

He was the happy warrior, rising from his radiation and chemotherapy in August to deliver a spirited speech for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

And he was beloved by his peers in public life as few ever are. Even Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged his special role on history’s stage when she made him an honorary knight of the British empire in early March 2009.

Most notably, he was the last Kennedy warrior, the brother who never gave up.

Maybe the signature Kennedy moment in recent years came in May 1999, a month after students killed their classmates at Colorado’s Columbine High School.

Kennedy had been fighting for restrictions on guns for more than 30 years. In 1968, the year his brother Robert was killed, Congress placed curbs on handguns but not rifles or shotguns, and in 1994, Democrats muscled an assault weapons ban into law.

On May 20, 1999, the Senate approved restrictions on gun shows ? by one vote. Not a huge victory, but a win for the cause.

Kennedy sat in his private third-floor Capitol office, one with no nameplate on the door. The room was a virtual museum. There was a rocking chair once made for his brother, the president. His father’s desk sat nearby. There was a black and white photo of Bobby with one of his children, and a huge painting of Joe Jr., his oldest brother, killed in World War II.

Kennedy spoke a bit about his gun-show victory, saying he won because “the fear has become broader and more understandable” following Columbine.

There was no gloating, no victory celebration. He knew that success in politics is achieved incrementally and humbly. He offered few thoughts; mostly he just smiled.

The hope still lives, his body language said, and the dream will never die.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.