The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carey Parker, stalwart Senate aide to Ted Kennedy, dies at 88

He helped shape some of the most significant federal laws of the past 50 years, becoming an eminence of Capitol Hill in his own right

Carey Parker, back row, second from left, served for four decades as a key staffer to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Mr. Parker is shown here with Kennedy, far left, at the White House in 1994 at the swearing in of Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, back row, third from right. (White House Photo)

Carey Parker, who helped shape and shepherd to passage some of the most significant federal laws of the past 50 years as the chief legislative aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), becoming an eminence of Capitol Hill in his own right, died Dec. 4 at a rehabilitation center in McLean, Va. He was 88.

The cause was complications from an enlarged prostate, his daughter Annie Parker Dalgleish said.

Mr. Parker was 34 years old, a Rhodes scholar with a Harvard law degree, when he joined Kennedy’s office in 1969. Scarcely six months earlier, the senator’s brother Robert, a U.S. senator from New York then seeking the 1968 Democratic nomination for president, had been fatally shot in California.

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, Robert’s death left Ted the only surviving Kennedy son and, as a senator still in his first full term, the heir to his family’s political legacy.

Over the next four decades, through tragedy and controversy, Ted Kennedy emerged as one of the most consequential senators of his era. He oversaw a large office of staffers who shared his commitment to civil rights, social justice and other central tenets of liberalism. But by all accounts, no aide did more behind the scenes than Mr. Parker to translate Kennedy’s ideals into legislation, or to support him as he assumed his mantle as the “lion of the Senate.”

“He was my father’s alter ego,” Patrick J. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s youngest child and a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, said of Mr. Parker in an interview, recalling how the senator relied on Mr. Parker’s “brilliance” to “advance their common cause.”

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Mr. Parker was hired as a legislative assistant but soon took on responsibilities far outstripping the title. In his recently published biography “Ted Kennedy: A Life,” author John A. Farrell described Mr. Parker as “something of a Senate legend” and one of Kennedy’s “matchless assets.”

On matters of legislation, he “had the first word with the senator and the last word with the senator,” Jeff Blattner, who served as chief counsel to Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview.

Like Kennedy, Mr. Parker was a skilled negotiator, ever attuned to the needs and ambitions of colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. Also like Kennedy, he had a capacious mind for the intricacies of policy on matters ranging from voting rights to health care to tax policy to apartheid in South Africa and peace in Northern Ireland.

The senator devoted years to health care and social services. Working closely with Mr. Parker, he helped pass laws, including the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (often called HIPAA), the 1997 law that created what is now the Children’s Health Insurance Program (widely known as CHIP), and the Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed in 2010, a year after Kennedy died.

“He had a direct impact on many, many pieces of legislation that improved the lives of literally millions of people,” said Paul Donovan, who served on Kennedy’s staff from 1987 to 1997, including as press secretary and chief of staff.

Mr. Parker also served Kennedy as a speechwriter. He was cited as a principal author of the 1987 address Kennedy delivered on the Senate floor 45 minutes after President Ronald Reagan announced that he would nominate conservative jurist Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to Farrell’s book, Blattner had written the first draft of the speech. But after Mr. Parker finished with the text, “it had a zing like biting a jalapeño,” Blattner told Farrell.

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution,” Kennedy thundered. “Writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

“America,” he declared, “is a better and freer nation than Robert Bork thinks.”

Bork’s nomination was ultimately rejected by the Senate in one of the most divisive battles over a judicial nomination to that point. “It certainly served its purpose,” Mr. Parker said of the speech in a 2008 oral history with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

In 1994, during the Clinton administration, Mr. Parker helped shepherd through the Senate confirmation of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who had served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Kennedy was chairman.

Mr. Parker was a key adviser to Kennedy during the 1980 presidential election, in which Kennedy challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy’s bid was unsuccessful, but it gave him the platform for one of the most memorable speeches of his career, his address at the Democratic National Convention in New York. Kennedy speechwriter Bob Shrum drafted the remarks but credited Mr. Parker with refining them.

In the speech, Kennedy congratulated Carter on his victory and said that “for me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.”

But “for all those whose cares have been our concern,” he declared, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

William Carey Parker II was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 3, 1934. His father was a physician, and his mother was a church volunteer.

He grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and was a 1952 graduate of the private Haverford School in Haverford, Pa. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1956, studied as a Rhodes scholar at Trinity College at the University of Oxford, and received a PhD in the sciences from what is now Rockefeller University in New York in 1963.

Inspired by Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural address, in which he called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” Mr. Parker pursued a career in public service.

He received a bachelor of laws degree from Harvard University in 1965, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and served as a special assistant in the Justice Department’s criminal division before joining Ted Kennedy’s staff. During their early years together, they played a key role in lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, a goal achieved with the ratification in 1971 of the 26th Amendment.

Kennedy so valued Mr. Parker’s service that, in an unusual arrangement, he used his personal wealth and money from his political action fund to supplement Mr. Parker’s Senate salary. Mr. Parker served the senator until Kennedy’s death from brain cancer, and remained on the office staff under Paul G. Kirk Jr., who held the Senate seat until Republican Scott Brown’s victory in a 2010 special election.

Mr. Parker was a longtime resident of the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. His wife of 57 years, the former Betsy Libby, died in January. Survivors include two daughters, Annie Parker Dalgleish of Vienna, Va., and Catherine Parker of Seattle; a brother; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Parker cared little for the dinners and cocktail parties where congressional hobnobbers often gather. He worked through lunch every day, dining at his desk on an egg salad sandwich purchased from the Senate cafeteria.

He did, however, confess to enjoying the Kennedy office holiday parties, in which the snowy-haired senator would sometimes dress up as Santa Claus. One year, Kennedy went as Barney, the purple Tyrannosaurus rex of the children’s television show, in a self-deprecating nod to jabs at him as an aging “dinosaur” of Capitol Hill. Another year, Kennedy, the “lion of the Senate,” donned a costume from “The Lion King.”

Mr. Parker, ever content to let the senator shine, wore his normal attire. “I was just standing in the background,” he said.

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