How Obama Snared the Lion of the Senate

By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Monday, August 3, 2009; 10:44 PM

In the fall of 2006, Ted Kennedy was looking for a candidate, a special kind of candidate who might inspire the country. The Massachusetts senator, leader of the liberals and one of the Democratic Party's most famous figures, saw potential in several politicians who were then looking to run for president: Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were his friends; Hillary Rodham Clinton had been a solid legislator in her first term; and then there was the young and relatively untested Barack Obama.

When Obama came to the Senate, Kennedy recruited him to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He admired the senator's commitment to finding a compromise on immigration. He saw genuine leadership qualities in Obama, so when Obama talked to him privately about running for president, Kennedy was encouraging.

Kennedy believed the longer Obama stayed in the Senate, the less chance he would ever have to become president. According to a source familiar with their conversation, he told Obama, "The votes you're going to have to cast, whether it's guns or whether it's abortion or whether it's any one of the hot-button items, finishes you as a national political leader in this country. You just can't do it. It's not possible."

Kennedy admired Clinton but felt she was wrong for the times. A successful candidacy in 2008 had to be an outside-Washington effort. You couldn't be a Washington insider and run effectively; Clinton appeared to be positioning herself in just the wrong way. Kennedy believed that the time was right for Obama and that Clinton was, as an associate put it, "the past."

Kennedy was in no rush to make an early endorsement. He continued watching the race and the public's reaction to the candidates. In the summer of 2007, he was with niece Caroline Kennedy and her children on a boat in Tarpaulin Cove off Cape Cod. Earlier, Caroline had taken her children to hear both Obama and Clinton at fundraisers. As the children talked about the candidates, Kennedy was moved by their enthusiasm for Obama. He had not seen that kind of excitement in young people in a generation and was struck by how Obama's appeal to them was less about his policies and more about how he represented a dramatic break from the divisive politics of the present. Still, for much of 2007, as the race developed he held back an endorsement.

In September, he ran into Clinton on the Senate floor and thought she looked very tired. She told him that if she got the Democratic nomination she wanted to start working with him right away on health-care reform. When Obama came to see him about the same time, Kennedy remarked on the enthusiasm his candidacy was generating among young people. My problem, Obama told him, is gravitas. Hillary's got it. Kennedy suggested Obama talk with Ted Sorensen, who had been President John F. Kennedy's speechwriter. I talk to Ted all the time, Obama said. Obama asked what Kennedy's plans were for an endorsement. Kennedy said he had no plans to endorse. But he was still impressed by Obama's energy and charisma; if Obama became president, Kennedy thought, he could change the country. At the same time, he wondered whether Obama could build a campaign that could win the party's nomination and the presidency.

Also in September, John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, who were in town for a fundraiser, came to see Kennedy at his home in Northwest Washington. Edwards made a direct appeal. He knew Kennedy had friends in the race, he said, but urged him to do right by the country and the party. "I know you'll do that and when you do what's right for the party you will be with me," Edwards said, according to a Kennedy source. "It can make all the difference. We can win this. I'll win Iowa."

In the late fall, the phone calls to Kennedy intensified. Hillary Clinton was frank about wanting his endorsement, though she understood how difficult it would be for him because of his close friendship with Dodd. Bill Clinton, with whom Kennedy had a stronger relationship than with Hillary, called regularly. At one point, Obama, obviously worried that Kennedy might endorse Dodd, said warily, "You could do me some damage in Iowa." Kennedy laughed it off. "Oh, I haven't been in Iowa for a long time," he said. To which Obama responded, "You still have some friends out there."

In late December, a 2003 tape recording of Obama made while he was still in the Illinois Senate became public. It was a comment on Kennedy's efforts to pass a prescription drug bill. Obama had described Kennedy as "getting old and getting tired" and said the backers of a strong drug measure should get after him. Obama called Kennedy to make amends.

"Well," Kennedy said when he picked up the phone, "you start the conversation."

Obama began to grovel, but Kennedy stopped him. He would let Obama off the hook, he said gently, because he had once mangled Obama's name, in a speech at the National Press Club the month Obama was sworn in as a senator, calling him "Osama bin Laden" before stammering out his correct name.

The Kennedys and the Clintons were the royalty of the Democratic Party, their reigns stretching over half a century of national and party politics. Ted Kennedy never reached the White House, crushed by Jimmy Carter when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1980, but he was now an iconic figure, a supreme lawmaker and a giant in the Senate, the keeper of the Kennedy family flame, the leader of the party's liberal wing, the patriarch of a family that had seen glory, tragedy and heartache. Now, at age 76, Edward Moore Kennedy moved slowly, stooped as he walked, had the girth of an older man that contrasted with the slim young figure who had entered the Senate more than four decades earlier. But his eyes were clear, his voice resonant, his broad Boston accent instantly identifiable, his political passions still burning.

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