When I first encountered him in Beckley, W.Va., in the spring of 1960, Ted Kennedy was an impossibly handsome 28-year-old campaigning for his big brother in the Democratic primary against Hubert Humphrey.
The family, which never spoiled the youngest brother, had sent him to dauntingly tough territory. Raleigh County was home base for Sen. Robert Byrd, then no friend of the Kennedys, and the headquarters of the United Mine Workers, which was supporting Humphrey. It was old Ku Klux Klan territory, deeply skeptical of the Catholic candidate.
Ted Kennedy tackled the challenge the same way he did so many others later in the life that ended at 77 on Tuesday: head-on. He walked the streets of Beckley and the small mining communities that surrounded it, chatting up people, urging them to give John Kennedy a chance. JFK carried the county.
As a senator, as the de facto leader of liberal Democrats for decades, even as a failed presidential candidate, Ted Kennedy was always the same, pursuing his goals no matter the odds. Where brother Bob cautiously waited until Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race to begin his anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968, Ted Kennedy in 1980 challenged the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, simply in the belief that Carter had abandoned the principles of the Democratic Party.
Kennedy suffered a humiliating defeat but returned to the Senate unbowed and fashioned a career unique in both its legislative accomplishments and the range of his personal friendships. His mourners range from conservative Republican Orrin Hatch, of Utah, to liberal neighbor Chris Dodd, of Connecticut – and scores in between.
Kennedy was not a simple man. The purposefulness of his public life coexisted uncomfortably with the utter lack of discipline that marked decades of his personal behavior. While he sought power in the Senate, gaining and then losing the whip’s job to Robert Byrd, and challenged for the presidency, he never seemed all that ambitious for himself.
Though often inarticulate in interviews, he was a powerful orator, delivering at least four speeches to Democratic conventions that will be remembered for a very long time. He had an acute eye for talent and built a staff that was the envy of the Senate. From age 30, when he arrived, to the end, he maintained the quality of that staff.
Most of all, he was a legislator. His real work was done largely out of public view in committee hearings and markups, where he would shape and reshape the ideas that flowed in from his academic neighbors in Cambridge, Mass., and his staff into bills that could command majorities in the Senate.
Kennedy was no more interested in losing on the Senate floor than he was back in Beckley. While Republicans raised uncounted millions using him as the symbol of menace, he continually sought out and found partners for his legislation on the opposition benches.
Hatch, the strait-laced Mormon, became a favorite partner, as did John McCain, who turned into a passionate advocate of patients’ rights under Kennedy’s tutelage.
When writing about Kennedy earlier, at the onset of his fatal illness, I talked about the many personal kindnesses that endeared him to people. In response to that column, I heard so many more examples from colleagues and citizens of Massachusetts.
I retell one of them. A man in Malden said that he wrote Kennedy’s office saying that he had been trying to buy two Red Sox tickets so he could take his father, who had lost his legs to diabetes and now was dying, to a game. Because of the illness, he needed seats down low, close to the field, and had not been able to get them. The next week, he had the tickets.
As I have said before, I will never forget how he and his wife sat with my colleague Mary McGrory after a stroke had silenced her and how he sang to her the Irish ballads they both loved. God rest his soul.
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