Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy

It may be hard to imagine in this age of Obama, but there was a time when Ted Kennedy was key to keeping a Clinton in the White House. Republicans had humiliated President Clinton in the 1994 midterms in part by nationalizing the elections and portraying Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal. Talk of a one-term presidency was in the air--even a challenge for the nomination. Democrats who hadn't ditched Clinton were prodding him to tack right to save his presidency. Most analyses of Clinton's eventual victory emphasize his focus on traditional Republican issues. But the real foundation of Clinton's reelection, and one that has been largely unnoted, was a liberal agenda crafted, driven and delivered by Ted Kennedy.

"He was one of the first and most aggressive believers that, even if we'd lost because we were misunderstood or whatever in '94, that there was still a lot that could be done and, in some ways, the contrast had opened new avenues for accomplishment," Clinton told me shortly after his reelection. I was tracking Kennedy for nine months during this time for a profile for The New Yorker. "He saw through the ebbs and flows of the debate," Clinton said.

The unlikely alliance began on Dec. 13, 1994, just after the disastrous midterm results. The two met in the Treaty Room, the president's private office on the second floor of the White House. Kennedy sat in a rose-colored wingback chair, beneath the "Loneliest Job in the World" photograph of John Kennedy standing solemnly at the south window in the Oval Office, head down (one of Clinton's favorites). Clinton was beleaguered and at a turning point. Kennedy had prepared a three-page strategy memo on the future of the party and argued that the 1994 election was not a referendum on liberalism. And, contrary to what Clinton was hearing from nearly everyone else, the president did not need to move to the right to survive. Pick out areas where the Republicans were seen as extreme, Kennedy urged. Campaign on traditional Democratic ideals that people can understand: protecting Medicare, Medicaid, and education and raising the minimum wage. Go back to health care, but make the reforms more modest; this is the strongest case for your presidency. "Their harshness will not wear well over time," Kennedy promised. He also warned Clinton not to take the traditional party base for granted.

Clinton was not as confident, and his aides were wary, in particular, of raising the minimum wage. "I don't think the White House, the president or any of us were ready" to go with Kennedy's program, Patrick Griffin, Clinton's chief lobbyist in Congress, told me.

Kennedy kept pushing his issues, and by the time Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, became the presumptive Republican nominee in the early spring of 1996, the presidential race had moved to the Senate. There, Dole's plan was to engage in a "Rotunda strategy"; he would show that, unlike Clinton, he was a leader who could get things done. I was attending Kennedy staff briefings and strategy meetings at the time. In politics, timing is everything.

Kennedy saw Dole's ascension as a near perfect opportunity. Kennedy could press for health-insurance reform and raising the minimum wage, make the Republicans look mean through their opposition to the measures and show that Dole was not the leader he was reputed to be. Dole was under pressure to prove his conservative credentials by not bringing up minimum wage for a vote, so Kennedy's tactic was to offer it as an amendment to every bill. On almost a daily basis, Kennedy embarrassed Dole. "That issue is not going to go away," Kennedy boomed one day on the Senate floor when Dole stopped work on an important immigration bill to prevent a vote on the wage increase. The dust up landed Dole in an unflattering light on the front page of The New York Times. Dole ruefully told his campaign manager, Scott Reed, "We're getting killed." Kennedy stepped up his attacks, and two days later he went after Dole on a modest health-insurance bill that would make health coverage portable; Kennedy persuaded four Republicans to join all 47 Democrats to block Dole.

Dole realized Kennedy's tactics were doing serious damage to his campaign and uniting the once-fractured Democrats. "It was the perfect vehicle for portraying Republicans as mean, white, and male," Reed told me. "They just smoked us on minimum wage to the point we caved." On May 15, Dole finally decided to resign from the Senate to campaign full time. When I asked Reed about Kennedy's role, he said Kennedy was the prime legislative mover behind Dole's decision: "No one could have done it at the same level as Kennedy." One week before the Democratic National Convention, with Kennedy nearby, Clinton signed into law both the minimum-wage increase and Kennedy's health-reform bill. "The worst week of the campaign," Reed said. One poll showed Clinton jumping 5 percentage points ahead of Dole.

In our interview, Clinton reflected that "a lot of people have great skills in Congress and aren't great politicians in an electoral sense. There are a lot of people who are great politicians who don't understand the moves, you know. He's just as good at what he does as Michael Jordan is at playing basketball. I mean, he can always see the opening. He's got lateral vision, and it's uncanny what he can do."

I spent a lot of time in Kennedy's Senate office, and whenever there was down time I'd get lost in the history covering his walls--old photographs and family letters. I did the math twice the first time I saw the framed $50 check from his mother, Rose, for Christmas, instructing him to buy something for his boat (Kennedy was in his 40s). Another day I was in his private bathroom and I noticed a small watercolor of the White House painted by Jamie Wyeth. All the windows are dark except one, on the second floor. I looked closer at the inscription: "For Ted, How I wish that it were your light." In one of our last interviews, I asked Kennedy whether he ever still yearned to be president. He laughed. "I love the Senate and think of myself as a Senate person, and that's where my ambition lies," he said. He then paraphrased the poet Robert Browning, "If one's reach does not exceed one's grasp then what is heaven for?"