Pinpointing the moment that defines Edward M. Kennedy's 45-year Senate career is, to say the least, a bit of a challenge. The Massachusetts senator has played critical roles in legislation ranging from his first bill, an overhaul of the American immigration quota system, up through No Child Left Behind and the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007; his political allies easily span the political spectrum. But his biographer, Adam Clymer, believes there is one moment that stands out as particularly telling. In 1982 Kennedy had lost a presidential bid in the prior cycle and was toying with the possibly of another run in 1984. After dabbling in some campaign planning, Kennedy made up his mind: he would remain a senator. "At that point he committed himself to the Senate … That's the moment that he put himself on the path to becoming what I think of as the most effective lawmaker of the 20th century," says Clymer, who in 1999 wrote "Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography."
Kennedy could become the last member of his family to play an instrumental role in American politics; Clymer says none of the younger Kennedys seem poised to replace him or his brothers as national political figures. "At the point when he no longer serves, it will be the end of that era," he says. Shortly after Senator Kennedy's diagnosis of a brain tumor was made public Tuesday, NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Clymer about Kennedy's legacy. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Kennedy has spent over four decades in the Senate. What is his legacy?
Adam Clymer: He is someone who believes he knows what the Democratic Party should stand for and has done his best to ensure that it does. One example of that was in 1995 [after] the GOP had just won sweeping control of the House and the Senate. Democrats were having a meeting discussing approach. One of the issues was whether they should support an increase in the minimum wage. Some people were for it; some were against it. And then his junior colleague from Massachusetts, John Kerry, said, "Supporting this will make small business unhappy with us." And Kennedy cut him off and shouted, "If you don't believe in raising the minimum wage, you don't deserve to call yourself a Democrat."
Ted has had the ability, and has shown it since the mid-'60s, to find Republican allies, people he may disagree with most of the time but agree with on a particular bill and issue. There isn't a major piece of legislation that he's gotten passed, except for a couple of minimum wage bills, that didn't have critical support from Republicans. Probably the most bizarre partnership was with Lauch Faircloth from North Carolina, an exceedingly conservative Republican. They got together on a bill to bring FBI investigators into church bombings.
Has his style or reputation changed at all since you wrote your biography?
It's become harder and harder to work across party lines in the Senate. The narrow divisions of 2000 made it essential for each party to keep its members in line. Right now the default mode is inaction, and that's a less comfortable position for Ted, who was always trying to find people to work with.
What do you make of his foray into Democratic presidential politics this election cycle?
I think there were three reasons for his support of [Barack] Obama, despite the fact that he liked Hillary Clinton and worked with her, helped her adjust to the Senate. First, there's the fact that his children and his nieces and his nephews put a lot of pressure on him. He's always paid attention to what the next generation thinks. I think the second was unhappiness with Bill Clinton's apparent attempts to bring race into the issue. I think the third was Ted had told me repeatedly that civil rights is the unfinished business of the American agenda. When it came down to it, for him at least, race trumped gender.
What impact have the Kennedys had on Massachusetts's politics? What's Ted's role in that?
They have never really tried very hard to influence Massachusetts's politics other than to get themselves re-elected. There isn't the Kennedy organization. There are Kennedy followers, but they don't really throw their weight around in terms of who the party nominates for things. It's curious—they haven't been greatly involved in Massachusetts politics other than when a candidate [from their family] was running.
What is your sense of Ted's role within the Kennedy family?
I interviewed him about 20 times during my book. The only time I was ever interrupted was when he got a call from one of his nieces. I think he's been very important. Some talk about it, some don't, but he's always been there, particularly for Robert Kennedy's kids … Robert's kids had a father assassinated, and some didn't come out very well. I've talked to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest of them, about hearing from him. She was finishing her last year at Putney [a high school in Vermont], the year after her father's death. She told me there was one phone where students could get calls. She says she can't remember how many times she heard from Uncle Ted about problems involving her brothers and sisters.
What about his political role within the Kennedy family? Did his brothers' political careers impact him?
Greatly. The first bill he ever managed in the Senate was an immigration bill that eliminated a system that existed since the '20s, a national origins quota: so many people could come in from Ireland, so many people from Italy, no one from China. This was Jack's bill. Jack had written a book called "A Nation of Immigrants." He died, and [Ted] managed that bill and got that through. In a lot of areas he's responded to the concerns of Jack, and later of Robert. His concerns about the poor in West Virginia, on Indian reservations and in Alaska is picking up Robert's concern. He was devoted to them and is devoted to their causes.
Ted has dealt with a number of family tragedies in his life. Do you have a sense of how that has prepared him to deal with his own?
I suspect it has. He broke his back in an airplane crash in 1964 and spent several months in what they called a Stryker frame, which is sort of like a waffle iron, which enabled him to heal his back. His son lost a leg to bone cancer that nearly killed him. He's dealt with that stuff personally, dealt with problems of his nieces and nephews. Some of his sisters have had health problems. He started introducing national health insurance legislation in 1969 in large measure because he saw the fact that, because he was wealthy, he could get good health care and other people couldn't necessarily. His son got the very best experimental bone cancer treatment, both because of their wealth and Kennedy's prominence. He knows perfectly well, and has said from time to time, lots of Americans can't because they can't afford it.
How would you describe the next generation of Kennedys, in terms of their interest in public office?
Ted often jokes, when people ask him whether he's going to run again or going to retire, he says, "You know, a lot of my nieces and nephews have been asking me the same question, as if they were all lining up to run for a seat." But I don't think they are. Several of them have done it a bit, but only [his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island] is now holding public office. Kathleen didn't run a very good race for election to governor of Maryland and lost. Joe [son of Robert F. Kennedy] has withdrawn from elective politics [after serving several terms in the House]. They lead various kinds of lives. We know what a number of them do. Kathleen teaches now. Ted Jr. is a lawyer with some environmental interests. Kara is a housewife in Bethesda [Md.].
Do you think that could change when Ted is no longer serving, that the younger generation might get more interested?
I'd say some, but I don't think it's a dominant concern. Joe was in the House when Ted was in the Senate. Kathleen was lieutenant governor when he was in the Senate. I'm not sure whether he serves in the Senate or not matters all that much. They have a certain edge with a name, but that's not really enough.
So could this be an end to the Kennedy political era?
I guess so. When we talk of eras, his two brothers never grew old in our sight. They both served in the '60s; they both died in their 40s. Ted in a month or so will have outlived Robert by 40 years. He's the only [elected] Kennedy we've seen grow old. At the point when he no longer serves, it will be the end of that era.