Kennedy Succeeded by Showing Up and Working Hard

Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate sometimes liked to raise money by invoking Teddy Kennedy as a caricature of big, fat, out-of-control liberalism. Kennedy was not particularly bothered by these attacks; indeed he joked about them. He could afford to, because he knew that if a Republican senator wanted to get a law passed, sooner or later he or she would be in the office of Senator Kennedy, asking for help. For several decades, not much got accomplished in Congress without Edward Kennedy's active support.

Kennedy was the second coming of Daniel Webster not because he was a terrific speechmaker. His greatest flights of oratory, like his "Dream Shall Never Die" speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, were written by someone else and actually out of character. A funny and salty storyteller in private, Kennedy was often bombastic or inarticulate in public. Nor was Kennedy a visionary. For years, he propped up Democratic interest groups whose thinking hadn't evolved much since LBJ's Great Society or FDR's New Deal. His own ideology seems to have been rooted in liberal guilt: since the rich have a lot (like good health care), why shouldn't the poor? Kennedy's gifts were more of the heart than the head.

His career confounded the Kennedy Myth. For decades, the public has associated the Kennedys with drama, glamour, and celebrity. The Kennedy family has been our favorite public soap opera, lurching between triumph and tragedy. Yet the youngest son was not intellectual and debonair like his brother Jack, or intense and bold like his brother Bobby. For all the eulogies about his epic struggle with sin and redemption, Ted actually vindicated a more mundane truism: that half (or maybe as much as 90 percent) of success in life is just showing up.

In 1965, when both Robert and Edward Kennedy sat on the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, the two brothers found themselves waiting several hours during a committee meeting to question a witness. Robert passed a note to Ted: "Is this the way I become a good senator—sitting here and waiting my turn?" Ted wrote back, "Yes." Robert pressed: "How many hours do I have to sit here to be a good senator?" Ted scribbled: "As long as necessary, Robbie." RFK was too impatient to be a good senator, but EMK relished the minutiae and drudgery of legislation, along with the cloakroom camaraderie and the dealmaking and favor-swapping that are essential to passing laws. He possessed two qualities rarely found in our elected representatives: he did not hog the limelight, and he was never petty. For 47 years in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy patiently waited his turn, and by doing so accomplished more for the poor and dispossessed than any other senator, ever.

Kennedy contributed his own share of dark family drama at Chappaquiddick and in his late-night roistering in the watering holes of Capitol Hill before he settled down happily with his second wife, Victoria Reggie, whom he married in 1992. Part of just showing up for Kennedy was presiding as paterfamilias at endless family graduations, weddings, and funerals. Judging from the testimony at the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith in 1991, he also sometimes presided over family bar-hopping and skirt-chasing. But in the Senate, the party-boy Teddy—the onetime spoiled Harvard kid who got kicked out for arranging for a friend to take his Spanish exam—was a dutiful grind.

Kennedy devoured briefing books—huge binders stuffed with mind-numbing research—the way most people read novels, recalls Jim Manley, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Every evening at 6 in Kennedy's office was "bag time"—when one or sometimes two briefcases were stuffed with Kennedy's homework for the night. In the morning, the memos and position papers would be recirculated through the office, with Kennedy's sharp questions and demands for action scrawled in ink. Kennedy ate lunch at his desk with his scheduler and rarely walked to an elevator without conferring with an aide or three. (Being a Kennedy does have advantages—the smartest policy advisers lined up to work for him.)

Kennedy could posture and yell on the Senate floor, but he managed to make his foes into friends. Orrin Hatch of Utah was Kennedy's opposite in most ways. A devout Mormon, Hatch was irritated by Kennedy's cigar smoke at committee meetings, and had the gumption some years ago to tell Kennedy he should drink less. A conservative Republican, Hatch informed a local reporter that he had come to Washington to "fight Ted Kennedy"—but over three decades he ended up working with him time and again to pass social-welfare legislation. Kennedy could tease Hatch mercilessly, but when Hatch, a would-be professional singer, was looking for some backing in the entertainment business to make a recording, Kennedy arranged it with a quick phone call to Hollywood. Hatch ended up writing a love song for Kennedy's fifth wedding anniversary in 1997.

Kennedy could be harsh in debate, but he was careful to make amends. He never let himself get too offended by others. After Sen. Strom Thurmond would rail against him at labor-committee hearings, recalls Kennedy's longtime aide Melody Miller, "he would amble over to Thurmond and throw his arm over his shoulders and laughingly say, 'Now, Strom, don't get too upset. Come on over to Judiciary and I'll give you some judges!' " Kennedy was endlessly patient about getting his way. When House and Senate conferees would start to hammer out a bill, says California Rep. George Miller, "Kennedy would raise some controversial point and just talk and talk about it. The others would eventually say, 'Let's just set it aside for now, OK?' Then several weeks or months would pass, and just as the bill was getting ready to close he'd bring it up again. Everyone would complain and he'd say, 'You told me to put it aside till later.' They'd always have the same response: 'Oh, let's just put it in the bill.' You could see Kennedy smiling like a Cheshire cat." Kennedy could be intimidating to junior senators, and he didn't mind inflicting a little hazing. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer's former aide Jim Kessler recalls that Kennedy ignored his boss at first. At committee meetings, Kennedy would rattle off the names of members until he got to Schumer, whom he referred to as "you over there." Schumer fretted, "Kennedy doesn't like me." But Kennedy gamely took, and lost, a bet with Schumer on a Red Sox–Yankees series a decade ago. As the loser, he had to wear a Yankees cap and recite "Casey at the Bat" on the Capitol steps. Kennedy began calling Schumer "Chuck" after that—and became something of a mentor.

Kennedy was at his best—at his most genuine—when other people were in trouble and feeling abandoned. In the summer of 1998, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle was accused of fabricating stories. Hounded by camera crews at his home in Hyannis Port, Barnicle was angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed late one night when he heard a soft knock on his door. It was Ted Kennedy, his neighbor and old friend. The night was hot, and Kennedy was wearing Bermuda shorts, boat shoes without socks, and a "big old short-sleeved shirt with ketchup stains on it—Teddy loved to eat," Barnicle recalls. "The first thing he said was not to worry, that things work out. He told me to come over to their house any time because, as he said, 'Nobody knows how to hide out as well as we do.' " Kennedy gave Barnicle some rosary beads—and made a private call to Barnicle's publisher, as well as to Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law, to intercede on Barnicle's behalf.

It is hard to know what made Kennedy such a thoughtful person in a family that could be arrogant and heedless at times. Perhaps it was learning to cope as the pudgy youngest son, mocked as "Muffins" by his high-powered siblings (young Teddy played the amiable clown, but began drinking heavily at an early age). Maybe it was the five months he spent immobilized in a body sling in 1964 recuperating from a plane crash. Kennedy thought a lot about things, he recalled, and began reading all the books he hadn't read in college, his family joked. Maybe it was his Catholic faith, deepened by tragedy and redemption. In any case, he never lost his humor or sense of perspective. When his mother, Rose, died at about the same time Sen. Alan Simpson's mother, Lorna, passed away, Simpson suggested that maybe the two mothers had gone to heaven to clear the way for their sons. "They're going to need a bulldozer," replied Kennedy.