Don’t miss the ultimate foodie event, The Baltimore Sun's Secret Supper

Kennedy beloved by his friends, respected by his foes

Special to the Chicago Tribune

It was an eye-rolling moment of sticky sentimentality: Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell serenading a stocky white-haired man with "The Impossible Dream."

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear the unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go."
The audience was A-list -- former Vice President Al Gore, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- and A-listers wear their cynicism as naturally as a nicely knotted silk tie.
"This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far."
But no one celebrating Ted Kennedy's 70th birthday in a heated tent behind his D.C. mansion seemed to think it was hokey. Because the senior senator from Massachusetts and the man who personifies liberalism in American politics still dreams dreams many politicians think are impossible, and, much to the chagrin of conservatives, frequently gets his way.

Hard to believe but the youngest of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy's nine children turned 70 on Feb. 22, 2002, and marks his 40th year in the U.S. Senate this year.

He has served in the Senate longer than all but five others in the history of the United States. The celebration has been under way for weeks.

On Feb. 26, the Senate paid tribune to Kennedy. Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, spontaneously rushed to the floor to tell their own stories of the last surviving Kennedy brother, many intensely personal and some poignant.

A Republican senator, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, said, "His reputation for kindness and thoughtfulness is legendary."

At this point in his sometimes-tumultuous life, Kennedy is beloved by his friends and respected by his foes.

It has been awhile since Kennedy provided juicy fodder for the gossip columns -- although some late-night talk show hosts continue to skewer his reputation, especially as a drinker.

You rarely hear a mention of the accident at Chappaquiddick when a young female campaign aide to his brother Bobby died in his car when he drove it off a bridge late one summer night in 1969, a scandal that some say cost him the White House.

He is a grandfather four times over, married for 10 years to his second wife, Victoria Reggie, a 48-year-old lawyer, and a stepfather to her two children.

Of late, Kennedy has taken to joking he can run for re-election to the Senate four more times and still be younger than Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 99-year-old Republican from South Carolina. (Thurmond is so feeble he lives at the Walter Reed Army Hospital during the Senate session.)

Kennedy has spent more than half his life in the U.S. Senate but is still going strong. After he shelved his own presidential ambitions, sometime after his unsuccessful primary challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, he decided the Senate would be the place for his life's work.

Most observers would agree his legislative record far exceeds that of his brothers. But Kennedy still labors in their shadow of legends. They are never far from his thoughts. His office is a shrine of Kennedy memorabilia, including many photographs of his lost brothers.

During a briefing on border security issues at his office, he mentions Bobby was the last attorney general to actually visit the Immigration and Naturalization Service office.

Kara, his daughter, turned 42 the day before, and he remembers she was born during the New Hampshire presidential primary campaign in 1960, the year his brother John was elected president.

Part of American culture

Later in the day as he stage-managed two dozen elementary school children from Maryland's Prince Georges County and encouraged them to display handmade paper dolls, he made a sotto voce reference to being accustomed to large families. Stories about the Kennedy clan are so much a fixture in American culture, everyone in the hearing room understood the cryptic reference and erupted with laughter.

Tragedy has shadowed his life. All three of his brothers died violently and prematurely. The oldest, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., went first when his plane exploded over the English Channel during World War II. The tragedy has seemed endless. In 1999, his nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr., died when his plane crashed in the ocean near Nantucket. His friends say more than a half century of untimely deaths has sharpened his sensitivity to the suffering of others. He invariably is the first to call when tragedy strikes someone he knows.

The personal losses, he says, have also made him aware of the preciousness of time and reluctant to waste a second. He begins most days exercising on a treadmill, part of an ongoing, largely unsuccessful effort to keep his weight down, eats breakfast with his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Caroline, and heads to Capitol Hill with Splash, his curly haired black Portuguese water spaniel.

He suffers from chronic back pain that dates to 1964 when his back was broken in 26 places during a plane crash in western Massachusetts. A back brace provides little relief. The bad back has given him a peculiar pigeon-toed gait.

He has set lofty goals for the year: prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients and a patients' bill of rights. Neither will be easy in an election year with the Bush White House and powerful Republican-backed interests solidly against key provisions. Yet Kennedy is no Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Even Republicans say he knows how to cut a deal.

The old lion

A longtime friend who worked for him in the 1960s remembers his first realization of Kennedy's ability to do business with his ideological opposites. "Kennedy was this liberal icon," recalls the friend, "I was shocked to discover he spent every Friday afternoon drinking bourbon with Senator Eastland." James Eastland, the powerful Mississippi segregationist, chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kennedy's personal relationship with the old lion helped him get legislation through committee at a time Congress was passing landmark civil rights laws.

Now, Kennedy is the old lion. He and President Bush have struck up an unexpected friendship, which resulted in agreement on a major education bill in January.

"They enjoy each other and respect each other and they disagree," said Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff who is a former Massachusetts state legislator. "Ted Kennedy is someone who, when he wants something done, will work to get it done."

Bush not only invited Kennedy on a national victory lap on the day of the bill signing in January but made one of his appearances at Boston Latin School, America's oldest public school and the alma mater of Kennedy's father and maternal grandfather.

"The folks at the Crawford coffee shop would be somewhat shocked when I told them I actually like the fellow," admitted President Bush at the bill signing in Hamilton, Ohio. "He is a fabulous U.S. senator. When he's against you, it's tough. When he's with you, it is a great experience."

This prompted one of the most prominent conservatives in Washington to chide Bush in an open letter.

"I agree with you that Ted Kennedy is a very able legislator. But to go further and suggest that he is a wonderful human being is dangerous," wrote Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation. "If you must praise leaders who are your ideological enemies, do it in private."

Asked to elaborate, Weyrich said, "There is no comparable conservative currently serving who has reached age 70 and has the energy, drive and commitment to his cause that Ted Kennedy has." Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, has been the conservative counterpart to Kennedy, but he retires this year. Weyrich frets, "A Senate without Helms and with Kennedy is a sad place for conservatives."

Too busy for criticism

His ideological rivals on Capitol Hill, particularly in the U.S. House, consider him extreme, rigid and unreasonable. But these days, Kennedy is getting more heat from liberal Democrats who fret he is too quick to cut a deal with the Republican White House.

But Kennedy has become almost immune to criticism from both sides of the ideological spectrum. He is way too busy, bustling around Capitol Hill with the enthusiasm of a freshman, not someone in his seventh six-year term. One recent day, he led a subcommittee hearing on a proposal requiring the government to provide lawyers and guardians for children who arrive in the United States without an adult. The INS takes into custody about 5,000 unaccompanied alien minors each year. Before the hearing, Kennedy absently scratched his adoring dog and talked strategy with his staff. The bill needed Republican support, and Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, had agreed to come to the hearing with an open mind but would make no promises.

The hearing's star witness was a 15-year-old boy who fled from an abusive cousin in Honduras with the equivalent of $15. INS agents seized him at the U.S. border. He was repeatedly strip-searched, kept in shackles and held in prison for almost a year before winning asylum. After hearing the testimony, Brownback announced he would co-sponsor the bill. Afterward, Kennedy quietly noted with obvious satisfaction, "Brownback's support breaks this wide open."

Kennedy jokingly refers to President Bush as his new best friend. He is negotiating with the White House over provisions in the patients' bill of rights.

But the desire to do business with the president has not caused him to pull any punches. Weeks after the education bill was signed, he called for postponement of $350 million of Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut, and at a recent Department of Labor conference he sharply criticized the administration proposals on Social Security and pension protection.

"I'm enjoying my movie discounts," he told the conference audience, "but I'm not quite ready for retirement."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad