Ted Kennedy in the Senate

In 2002, Ted Kennedy took me on a private tour of his longtime home—not where he slept, but where he lived: the U.S. Senate, the place where he grew from callow and reckless to dogged and wise and, by many accounts, the most effective legislator in the history of the institution, Daniel Webster included.

It was the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's election to the Senate and while press interviews always made him uncomfortable, he figured that he would subject himself to one with an old acquaintance, especially if we did it largely on the fly.

We had met back in 1978 when I watched him sing "Sweet Caroline" to his treasured niece, Caroline Kennedy, on her 21st birthday. In the years since, he was unfailingly friendly, even ebullient, but our conversations always went better when they stayed focused on policy rather than personal matters, and this one was no exception.

We began talking in his Capitol "hideaway" office, festooned with family photographs and priceless mementos, now bound for the Kennedy Library. Most of the focus that day revolved around his relationship with President Bush, which was cordial and cooperative at the time. They exchanged gifts for their dogs as they worked together to fashion what became the landmark "No Child Left Behind" education bill.

But even then, Kennedy was appalled by the Bush tax cuts. "It's the greatest transfer of wealth from working families to the wealthiest families in the history of this country—the history of this country," he repeated. When I cut in with some qualification, he was having none of it. Now his voice was rising with that patented indignation. "Hold on a second! Hold on! That's what it is! Class warfare in reverse!"

After we talked for a while in the hideaway, Kennedy took me and his dog, Splash, on a brisk walk to see a few of the places that meant so much to him. He was hobbling a bit with a bad foot and too much weight but still moving at a good clip.

"Whatsa matter, Splashie?" he cooed. Splash is a Portuguese water dog, the same kind he gave years later to President Obama and his family. Kennedy explained that the "old bulls" of the Senate, men like Harry Byrd and Bob Dole, had also taken their dogs to work, which meant—"Ha!"—no rules had ever been made preventing well-connected dogs from having the run of the place.

The three of us traipsed over to the prewar Russell Senate Office Building and mounted the marble steps to the second floor Senate Caucus Room, where his brother Bob (he didn't call him Bobby) announced his campaign for president in 1968 from the same spot his brother Jack had used to announce his own candidacy in 1960.

This was where the Army-McCarthy hearings had been held in 1954 (with RFK as an aide to Joe McCarthy), along with the Watergate hearings in 1973, the Iran-contra hearings in 1986 and scores more. It put me in mind of all the history Kennedy had seen. (Story continued below...)

So I asked him for the highlights, the most momentous Senate votes of the last half century. His mind traveled back across the years to his first term, not long after he was elected in 1962 at age 30 for no other reason than that his brother was president of the United States.

His answer was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enacted in the wake of JFK's assassination, that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race; the 1965 Voting Rights Act, where Kennedy was especially proud of his sponsorship of the amendment banning the poll tax, which had been used for generations by Southerners to disenfranchise blacks; and the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, the bill that first allowed non-European immigrants into the United States in significant numbers, managed skillfully on the Senate floor by the young senator from Massachusetts.

"These were monumental," Kennedy said. "If you look around the world today, and you think of what progress we have made on eliminating discrimination on the basis of race and religion and national origin and gender and disability and sexual orientation to some extent, the last 50 years have been a major, really major kind of revolutionary period."

When he shouted his speeches, Kennedy could sound like a man on the barricades. But the weapons of this revolutionary leader were not brickbats and pitchforks. They were the quotidian rituals of the Senate—markups and conference committees, the pat on the back and the joke in the ear. To say that he was beloved by his Senate colleagues, even Republicans who loathed most of his agenda, fails to convey the depth of their devotion to him or the size of the swath he cut.

Back in the Capitol, we couldn't go on the Senate floor or into the cloakroom; they're reserved for senators only. But we did spend some time in an ornate room where reporters rarely tread. As Kennedy explained, after his brother was nominated for president in 1960, Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader and vice-presidential nominee, arranged for JFK to use a ceremonial chamber off the Senate floor as his temporary office, which has since been called the Kennedy Room, scene of a thousand deals.

What happened inside when the doors were closed? What's the secret to a successful Senate deal? The best approach, Kennedy said, was "honey, not vinegar." Reaching a deal with senators is "very much like any give-and-take, any kind of negotiation that people—businesses or parents negotiating with their children—are doing every single day of their lives."

"What's most important is that everyone is very strongly committed to a final outcome. If everyone in the room wants to get to that objective, then anything is possible. But if you have people in there who say they want to get there but don't really want to get there and don't know where they're starting from and don't know where they want to end up, then it's very difficult to negotiate. Of course, that's pretty standard."

Given how "standard" legislative paralysis is, Kennedy's accomplishments are all the more astonishing, especially on health care. Among dozens of other bills, he helped establish the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that has allowed millions of low-income mothers to have healthy, well-fed babies; the COBRA bill that permits workers to temporarily continue receiving health insurance between jobs; the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient privacy and limits the ability of insurance companies to cancel coverage; the Mental Health Systems Act, a law that allows the mentally ill to stay in their homes and communities instead of being institutionalized; and the Orphan Drug Act, which sponsors research into rare diseases.

Cancer, which devastated the Kennedy family long before it struck Ted, was a special interest. He helped launch the original war on cancer in 1971, which quadrupled funding for cancer research, then was instrumental in doubling it again in the 1990s.

Amid all the funding formulas and alphabet agencies, it's easy to forget that real lives are at stake. For instance, in a little-known move, Kennedy won increased support for research into blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma (the disease that took Jackie Kennedy in 1994), where funding levels didn't match the incidence of these diseases in the population. As a lymphoma survivor myself, the beneficiary of breakthrough treatment, I'm only one of tens of thousands of people who can say without exaggeration that Ted Kennedy's efforts have helped keep me alive.

In Kennedy's mind, all of these achievements paled next to his long-deferred dream of national health insurance. When President Nixon proposed a plan for universal coverage that would have delighted Democrats in later years, Kennedy, who long backed a government plan, led the opposition, a move he later regretted. So he moved to partial reforms, but even here he was often disappointed. His hopes of a major restructuring were dashed in the early 1990s with the defeat of Bill and Hillary Clinton's health-care initiative.

But more than any other senator, Ted Kennedy kept the hope of universal coverage alive, and any legislation this year will owe its existence to his persistent efforts.

Scores of other bills—from education reform to human rights to national service—also bear his imprint and would likely not have been approved without his deep knowledge of the peculiar process by which good ideas are turned into law.

Strolling down the halls of the Capitol, Kennedy was matter-of-fact about his family, but lapsed into a reverie reserved for the most ardent of tour guides when it came to the building.

"This is what they call the Brumidi Corridor—this is the most famous corridor here," he said exuberantly, pointing to the elaborate murals. "All hand done in 12 years."

But it was the exterior that really got the juices flowing. "They had a competition for the design of the Capitol, and they had an anonymous presentation of what the Capitol would look like, and the judges decided on the anonymous one."

Now the senator's eyes grew wide. "And who was the anonymous designer of it, but Thomas Jefferson! His design for the front basically set the pattern for this whole magnificent Capitol."

Finally, after a long walk, we found ourselves on the northeast grounds of the Capitol. Here, the senator pointed to a large but young tree. He had one more story—one important lesson—he still hoped to impart.

"That replaced what they called the 'Humility Tree.' When I first got to the Senate [in 1962], when most of the senators were housed in what they call the Russell Building now, all of the senators, no matter how important they were, all had to bow to get under the tree limbs. And that's why they called it the 'Humility Tree.' "

Ted wasn't humble. Kennedys aren't. But his openness and sense of perspective always came through. After his mother, Rose, died in 1995 at age 105, Kennedy wrote: "She taught us early that the birds would sing when the storm was over, that the rose must know the thorn, that the valley makes the mountain tall."

When I think of Ted Kennedy and the tragic arc of his life—losing four siblings before age 40, the crushing guilt of Chappaquiddick, the family heartache that seemed always to depend on his balm—I'm reminded of that image.

His valleys made his mountain taller—and ours, too.