Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.”
If you worked in the Senate in the 1970s, as I did, it did not take long before you became acquainted with Ted Kennedy’s staff. In almost every policy area, they were ubiquitous and known for their intelligence, drive, loyalty and savvy. I met Carey Parker, Kennedy’s legendary policy director, who had earlier clerked for Potter Stewart, in 1970 — and he was still there in Kennedy’s office four decades later. Kennedy’s staff alumni include some of the most consequential figures in recent American public life, from Justice Stephen Breyer to Labor Secretary Tom Perez to Ken Feinberg, the go-to guy for victim compensation since 9/11.
I met David Nexon, Kennedy’s health policy expert, and Nick Littlefield, who served Kennedy as chief domestic policy adviser and staff director on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee (now Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP). Littlefield, like so many Kennedy staffers, also became a close friend of the senator and his family, and was Kennedy’s regular partner on the tennis court.
Not long after Littlefield came to the Senate, it was jolted with the political equivalent of an 8.0 earthquake on the Richter scale. In the 1994 elections, Newt Gingrich brought his Republican tribe out of 40 straight years of minority status to a robust House majority, along with a Republican Senate, leaving Democrats dazed and demoralized, and President Bill Clinton deeply on the defensive for the second two years of his presidency. Littlefield, who took notes every night to record and remember his experiences, watched as Kennedy helped his party to recover from the blow and to pass significant, liberal legislation through a Congress that was anything but hospitable.
A few years later, Littlefield began to go through his notes to write a book about Kennedy and his role in those years, from his vantage point of intimacy inside the Kennedy office and the Senate — a classic participant-observer. Most of it was done by 2011, but progress slowed as Littlefield developed a degenerative disease, a variation of Parkinson’s; for the final stretch of writing and editing, he turned to his friend and longtime colleague Nexon to bring it across the finish line.
The result is a very nice piece of political history about a vital period and a long love letter to Littlefield’s and Nexon’s longtime boss. The story is in many respects compelling: The political process went from one where Gingrich and his troops were on their way to establishing a parallel presidency, seizing control of the initiative and the agenda immediately after the 104th Congress convened, to one where they were back on their heels after the disastrous government shutdowns and threats over the debt ceiling at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996, to a period of bipartisan legislating that lasted into 1997 before collapsing into the morass of impeachment politics.
As the arc of history changed in 1996, Kennedy moved aggressively into the vacuum, in the end succeeding in getting a minimum-wage increase and significant health insurance reform — something widely viewed at the time as impossible, given the spectacular failure in the previous Congress of the ambitious Clinton health reform plan, a failure that had helped the GOP sweep the 1994 elections. In the following Congress, Kennedy moved on health again — this time with the historic Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The minimum-wage increase was more of an outside game, skillfully designed by Kennedy and his labor allies to change the environment so that Republicans would be blamed if they blocked a highly popular reform at a time of wage stagnation and income inequality. The two health reforms were more internal, focusing on a great Kennedy strength — finding, and keeping, Republican allies. The first bill’s partner was Kansas’s moderate Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who built a longtime friendship with Kennedy on the Labor Committee and who became its chairman when the GOP took the majority. They partnered on what became known as the Kassebaum-Kennedy Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which was the first to provide some opportunity for people to keep insurance after they left jobs and the first to include some step toward mental health parity. It took diligence and discipline on both their parts, including Kassebaum taking on her state colleague and soon-to-be GOP standard-bearer, Bob Dole, on the Senate floor to kill his poison-pill amendment.
The second health bill, CHIP, was a partnership with Kennedy’s dear friend, conservative Republican Orrin Hatch. This bill, paid for with tobacco taxes, also had its challenges, including some tension between the two friends, but it made its way to enactment and remains a key part of the fabric of health policy in the country.
The book goes into detail on all the ins and outs of policymaking and getting to yes in the Senate, along with some nice examples of how logjams get broken, even in the face of individual obduracy. The most juicy is an account of how Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden quietly held back on confirming a North Carolina judge close to Jesse Helms until he could find a worthwhile trade-off, which came over Helms’s stubborn holds on a slew of health policy bills dear to Kennedy. Helms got his judge; Kennedy got his bills.
At the same time, Littlefield and Nexon write extensively about Kennedy as a person and as a senator. Much of what they write was well known to me as a longtime observer of the Senate: Kennedy was a true workhorse who left the office every day with a huge, thick briefcase filled with bills and staff memos, and returned the next morning with all of them heavily annotated. He was genuinely passionate about social justice and indefatigable in trying to achieve results. He was a liberal ideologue but a supreme pragmatist, always seeking support across party lines and always willing to take a half, quarter or tenth of a loaf if that was necessary. He mastered the rules and norms of the Senate enough to use them to advantage in achieving his goals.
But of course, while the stories are true, the book is still a narrow slice of the political reality of the 1990s. There were other actors, including Clinton and Rep. Henry Waxman on the Democratic side, who were also pivotal in these policy successes. Kennedy was a key figure — maybe the key figure — but far from the only important one.
Still, as a story about how the Senate operates — well, how the Senate used to operate — and a story about perhaps the greatest Senate lawmaker of the second half of the 20th century, “Lion of the Senate” succeeds, and with a writing style that will make it accessible beyond the specialists and political junkies. Along with Kennedy’s masterful memoir and Adam Clymer’s earlier superb biography of Kennedy the senator, it will add greatly to our understanding of this remarkable politician.
By Nick Littlefield and David Nexon
Simon & Schuster. 505 pp. $35