The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
 Main Story
  Why Ted Kennedy Can't Stand Still

By Rick Atkinson
Sunday, April 29, 1990; Page W11

At 3:27 p.m. on November 5, the senior senator from Massachusetts enters the Senate and strides down the aisle, thick frame filling his double-breasted suit like a stiff breeze fills a spinnaker. The chamber is vacant but for a few tourists and the pantheon of marble busts -- John Adams, Jefferson, Aaron Burr -- in their honored niches above the gallery.

For a moment, the senator slumps in a chair, studying a black briefing book on HR 2710, a bill to raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1981. Large as he is, his immense head still appears outsized, the noggin of a tribune.

He steps to the podium, 99 vacant desks behind him. Holding the notebook at arm's length, he recounts the compromise that congressional Democrats have fashioned with the White House Republicans. He invokes "the working poor" and "the test of fairness." When deviating from the text, he stammers a bit. Hand gestures -- little chops and stabs -- substitute for oratorical pizazz. He drones. The gallery shrinks.

But then the senator begins to describe the explosive growth in salaries for industry executives who have resisted better pay for their minimum wage workers, fat cats pulling in high six figures while opposing a six-bit raise. His voice rises, spiking the chamber with outrage and sarcasm. "Extraordinary! Absolutely shocking!" He is bellowing, to no one, but with the same vigor as if it were August 1980, and Madison Square Garden were again crammed to the rafters. "We have debated this issue over a period of 11 days," the senator thunders. "If this body does not know where it stands on the simple, fundamental issue of justice for working people, we are in very difficult times."

Having spoken his mind, he wheels up the aisle, a fair wind at his back, and exits through the double doors, above which is inscribed in gilt letters "Novus Ordo Seclorum" -- A New Order of the Ages Is Born.

TO HIS INNUMERABLE CRITICS, the image of Edward Moore Kennedy declaiming to a phantom audience is an apt metaphor for his long fall from grace, the fitting close to a disastrous decade. Kennedy began the 1980s with a sound thrashing at the hands of Jimmy Carter; his marriage ended in divorce, while tales of boozing and womanizing continued unabated; for six years he languished in the minority after Republicans captured the Senate; the decade was dominated by his ideological antithesis, Ronald Reagan.

He personifies liberalism for a generation -- much as William Gladstone did in British politics a century ago -- but in the America of 1990, that is a backhanded compliment at best. "After all is said and done," says Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater, "Ted Kennedy is still the man in American politics Republicans love to hate." At least some of the blame for liberalism's decline may be laid at his door, and he has been unable to articulate a compelling vision of America's future acceptable to a majority of the Democratic Party, much less the American electorate. Ruled by his passions, for good and ill, he will forever draw resentment from those who believe he squandered his chance to leave a larger imprint on the society he hopes to better.

This image of liberal impotence, however, can be misleading. For as the 1990s begin, Ted Kennedy sits in the catbird seat on Capitol Hill. He will not be president, and seems to know that; instead, he has channeled his energy and ambition into the Senate, a small, clubby hive of barons that perfectly suits his talents. Now fifth in seniority in the upper chamber, he has built a kind of shadow government as chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee and head of Judiciary and Armed Services subcommittees. Through serendipity and political acumen, he is positioned to dominate the domestic agenda for the rest of this century as few legislators have in the 200-year history of Congress.

Even Kennedy's political adversaries acknowledge that as he nears the end of his third decade in the Senate his fingerprints may be found on much of the significant social legislation of the past quarter-century: voting rights, immigration reform, occupational safety, fair housing, consumer protection, and on and on. In the 100th Congress, he shoved 39 bills through his committee and into law, including a big AIDS package and restrictions on the use of lie detectors in the workplace. Of nine Democratic objectives in the Senate for this second session of the 101st Congress, five will be routed through Kennedy's Labor Committee.

"He's becoming the statesman that we all hoped he would be," says Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on Labor. "Whether you agree with him or not, he's become one of the all-time great senators."

Yet, as ever, he remains a figure of controversy and complexity -- diligent, shrewd, loud, funny, indiscreet, generous, bibulous, moody, tenacious. An extroverted raconteur with a million friends, he can be his own worst enemy. His vices are well-catalogued, most recently in a Gentlemen's Quarterly article that portrayed him as an alcoholic libertine "who grew to manhood without learning to be an adult." Steadfastly consistent in his political catechism, he is nevertheless a study in paradox: a peerless orator afflicted with bouts of baffling incoherence and blurry political vision; a droll, self-deprecating wit who can be foul-tempered and impatient; a champion of righteous causes whose personal morals are perpetually under fire; a compassionate advocate for the better angels of our nature, capable, in the phrase of one admiring former aide, of "calculated demagoguery"; an implacable foe of Reaganism and Reaganomics who openly admires Ronald Reagan.

He embodies a peculiarly American archetype -- the Good Bad Boy -- who perseveres, with charm, despite life's vicissitudes and his own defects. Driven by dreams of a better future, he refers frequently to the past and his fallen brothers -- often to good political effect, but without seeming manipulative, perhaps because so much of his personal memory is our public memory. "Don't you think," says former Kennedy press secretary Bob Shrum, "that the country has a very complicated set of feelings about him and his family?"

He has all the makings of a tragic figure, yet refuses to play the part. Instead he insists on center stage, voice ever louder, gestures ever grander, resolutely imperfect, a flawed and final prince.

One Step Ahead of the Shadows

At 6 p.m. on Friday, December 15, a festive crowd jams the sweltering Labor Committee hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Kennedy's Christmas parties have become famous for their farcical skits, and there is much speculation about this year's antics. In 1987, the senator appeared as Fawn Hall -- blond wig, dress, "documents" stuffed down the back of his pantyhose -- while his nephew, Rep. Joe Kennedy, showed up in a Marine officer's uniform as Ollie North. In 1988, after a magazine article dubbed him "King of the Hill," Kennedy played Elvis Presley. Now the lights dim, the crowd hushes, and through a corner door prances the senior senator from Massachusetts as . . . Batman. In full costume -- cape, mask, ears, black leotard -- he is quite ridiculous. "That's BATman," the Caped Crusader growls, "not FATman."

THE MOST PUBLIC OF POLITICIANS, Ted Kennedy is also one of the most difficult to know. Several months of Kennedy-watching leave a curious thatchwork of impressions.

Accustomed to dominating any room he enters, he can be overbearing and caustic -- "that snitty tone," one acquaintance calls it -- if the limelight focuses elsewhere. "Well," Kennedy once interjected after a friend held forth a little too long for the senator's liking, "when we invited him to dinner we didn't know we were going to get Bill Moyers." Intensely competitive, he loves to wager, not as a compulsive gambler but rather as someone who enjoys being right. He bets on trivia -- what time the plane will land, when the pilot first learned of fog ahead, how many cars will be waiting on the runway -- and the standard stake is a bottle of wine, which he doesn't hesitate to collect.

He is neither erudite nor particularly analytical, except when it comes to politics. He is curious, with eclectic interests that are broad if not deep; during several conversations this winter, he skipped lightly from Brendan the Navigator to mythologist Joseph Campbell to Sherman's march through the South to baseball to John Adams to the Marine Corps. He also is impulsive: During a trip to Sparta, Ga., in December, he abruptly deviated from the schedule to tromp through a marshy field and inspect the wood filigree on an old barn that was for sale. "It's only $7,500," he muttered aloud, "but where would I put it?" In late February, during a dinner in Washington for Vaclav Havel, Kennedy decided the new Czech president must visit the Lincoln Memorial -- and off they went, late at night, to pay homage and read the ringing phrases from the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address chiseled on the shrine walls.

"If you want to find Ted Kennedy," says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), echoing a similar line about Franklin D. Roosevelt, "listen for the laughter." Robust humor is both salient in Kennedy's character and a secret to his political success. He is a gifted mimic, whether imitating Italian ward heelers in New England, his grandfather's singsong Boston brogue or, in view of dozens of puzzled Delta Air Lines passengers at the Atlanta airport recently, a small, yapping dog that kept him awake the night before. He often lampoons himself, particularly his girth. On his office wall hangs a framed 1940 letter from sister Jean to their father, who was then U.S. ambassador to Britain: "Teddy now has to go on a diet. Miss Dunn has to get {him} extra large size suits. Everybody looks skinny beside him."

His puckish streak plays well on the Hill, where humor can heal even the most jagged political wounds. Two years ago, Kennedy and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) fell into a heated Labor Committee argument over additional federal aid to education. After several barbed exchanges, Kennedy cut off the discussion and gaveled the session to a close. But as the two senators left the room for a meeting of the Judiciary Committee, Kennedy threw an arm around his colleague's shoulder. "C'mon, Strom," he urged, "let's go upstairs and I'll give you a few judges."

The flip side of good humor is bad humor, particularly if Kennedy's patience is taxed. When a staffer confesses uncertainty about how a particular vote will go, the senator has been heard to bark on the Senate floor loud enough for the galleries to hear: "What do you mean you don't know? Why can't I get a staff that knows what it's doing?" In Geneva several years ago, he threw a bitter tantrum when a logistical snafu caused a girlfriend to show up at the wrong airport terminal. Last November, as Congress careened toward a recess, he apologized for his office petulance by sending flowers to his secretaries -- with a note signed, "From Grumpy."

Even the ritualized courtesies of the Senate melt away when he blows a fuse. In the spring of 1988, according to an eyewitness, the normally florid Kennedy turned white with rage on the Senate floor and appeared close to blows with Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina during the AIDS bill debate. "You distort and mislead!" Kennedy charged. Helms fired back: "Talk about misrepresentation! You have developed it into a fine art, Senator!" Several months later, Kennedy again erupted, this time during a small, private meeting about a drug bill in the vice president's office in the Capitol. When Sen. Bob Graham of Florida persistently questioned a Kennedy amendment regarding the death penalty -- a provision that Senate leaders already had agreed could come to a floor vote -- Kennedy exploded: "I even opposed the death penalty for the man who killed my brother!"

The past lies very close to the skin for him. Memory may be the most potent part of his intellect; once an amateur painter, he recollects the fine brush strokes of events 30 years gone by as if they happened last week, so you can hear the thudding hooves of the Montana bronco named Skyrocket he rode on a dare in the '60 presidential campaign, or see him strolling with his mother across the dunes at Cape Cod. In one recent speech, recalling his brothers, he murmured, "Memory, memory," as though coaxing them back to life.

The overriding impression Kennedy leaves is of a man consigned to perpetual motion. Involuntary idleness -- waiting for a late plane, getting stuck in traffic -- often makes him furious. "The worst possible combination is to try to brief him while you're also driving him from his house {in McLean} to the Hill in the morning," one former aide says. "He's incredibly impatient in the car . . . I'd drive down the parkway and there was always a jam waiting to get on the 14th Street Bridge, so I'd routinely cut in line because I'd rather face the scowls and horn honking from other drivers than face Kennedy's wrath at getting stuck in traffic."

"He's like a shark -- not in the negative sense, but rather in the fact that he's got to keep moving all the time. That's part of Ted Kennedy's metabolism," says Thomas M. Susman, who spent 11 years on the Judiciary staff. "He spends his spare time sailing. That's relaxing? You're constantly in motion, moving around, raising this and lowering that. It's fairly tense, an on-the-edge kind of sport."

"Why is he so driven?" another former Judiciary staffer asks. "Because when you've got a legacy like his, you're one step ahead of the shadows. He's competing with myths." Less generous and more prosaic is the explanation of another aide who sees occasional glimpses of "a spoiled rich kid . . . who's never had to wait in line for anything."

Other reasons surely contribute. He ardently believes in the urgency of his causes, in pushing for a society that is fair, just, humane. As the sole male survivor in a family obsessed with public achievement, he is constantly confronted with the unfinished agenda -- and legendary stature -- of his brothers; by nature and upbringing, his private happiness is predicated on public accomplishment. And were he to stop "moving all the time," in Susman's phrase, who would Ted Kennedy be? Perhaps just another rich playboy, a clutch of appetites and indulgences, a nobody. As one of his closest friends observes, "This is a man who's not asking many questions about life; he's just doing it."

"He's a very demanding boss in a lot of ways," says former press secretary Shrum. "He has very high expectations. But he's also fun and interesting and fundamentally decent . . . He can get mad. He can also fall all over himself apologizing. He does not have any meanness. In the {six years} I worked for him, I can't recall more than five or six times when he blew up at me."

One of those occasions came after Shrum and a legislative aide fed Kennedy some wrong information, which he repeated in an editorial board session at the New York Times. "I'll thank you to let me make my own mistakes," the senator snapped while driving away from the newspaper office. "As you may have noticed, I'm quite good at it."

'The Bag Drives the Whole Operation'

On the morning of November 28, three weeks after the Wall has tumbled, Kennedy flies to Berlin. As the Pan Am jet crosses the Elbe, the senator studies his briefing books, oblivious to the ancient villages gliding past below with their red tile roofs and snow-trimmed fields. He will refer to this expedition as a "personal visit" and "a sentimental journey" -- recalling visits by Robert and John in the early 1960s -- but even sentiment has political underpinnings. In a black gunnysack, aides carry a thick stack of postcards with a photo of the Brandenburg Gate and a brief message from Kennedy pre-printed on the back. (The staff had jokingly proposed, "Ich bin ein Berliner too!" but settled for a more mundane greeting.) After buying $720 worth of West German postage stamps, an aide mails the cards to political supporters back home.

Another bag holds a stack of photographs of the three smiling Kennedy brothers at Hyannisport in the early '60s. While the senator strolls through a Christmas carnival in East Berlin, an aide distributes the pictures to a crowd of Germans, who surge forward as if grabbing for $100 bills. Everywhere Kennedy goes, a dense mob of security agents, photographers and admirers congeals around him; he travels through Berlin as though locked in a rugby scrum.

By the time he reaches his final stop at Tempelhof airfield, the large American air base in West Berlin, he is worn out; he collapses onto a chair in a private office, face etched with fatigue and the pain of a chronically sore back, so badly shattered in the near-fatal plane crash of 1964. But the political mask reappears instantly when an aide summons him to meet a group of U.S. airmen from Massachusetts.

A photographer arrives, and the Kennedy assembly line falls into place: Each airman shakes hands with the senator, poses for a picture and then gives his name and his parents' address to an aide who will see that a signed photograph is mailed home. A second assembly line forms moments later as Kennedy distributes mementos -- Senate key chains, pens, paperweights -- to the drivers, guards and officials who have helped him throughout the day. Hiding his exhaustion, he is all hail-fellow smiles.

"MY BABIES," ROSE KENNEDY ONCE SAID, "were rocked to political lullabies." Clearly, Ted Kennedy remembers the lyrics.

When referring to himself professionally, he almost invariably uses the word "politician," and on political terrain he is as sure-footed as anyone on Capitol Hill, intuiting the lay of the land the way a good geologist senses fault lines in a landscape. On March 29, four hours after returning from his trip to the Soviet Union, he sat with two reporters in his office for half an hour and offered a concise, thoughtful, often canny analysis of Mikhail Gorbachev's predicament "as a politician." (Asked in Moscow by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov to cite "the one thing we should avoid in the Soviet Union," Kennedy quipped, "Campaign financing.")

In the cloakroom or on the floor, Kennedy shuttles between senators, wheedling, guffawing, importuning and periodically peeking at a note card of colleagues to lobby and subjects to discuss -- "Durenberger: Chile, health," or "Specter: civil rights markup." He often is drawn to issues that can be cast in political terms. Senate Armed Services staffers were mystified by his fascination with the reorganization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until a Kennedy assistant explained: "He just sees it as Irish precinct politics moved to the Pentagon."

Brother Jack considered his youngest sibling the best politician in the family, and that may be most evident in Boston, now and always his true home. (From his office window in the JFK building downtown, he can see the streets where his mother, father and grandfather were born.) During a feverish, eight-event day in mid-January, Kennedy briefed a business group on national security issues; schmoozed with reporters and editors at a Lexington weekly; swung by a museum and a park; got testy with a human rights group pressing him on El Salvador; charmed a Chamber of Commerce luncheon; hinted to an Air Force general that he will fight plans to diminish Hanscom Air Force Base; and strolled down muddy Battle Road between Lexington and Concord, shivering in the brilliant cold and cheerfully reciting Emerson's "Concord Hymn" -- "By the rude bridge that arched the flood" -- to a small cluster of bemused journalists.

The Kennedy brand of politics as played in Berlin or Boston -- and, indeed, his frenetic approach to life in general -- requires a big and sometimes brassy supporting cast. "Other Senate offices aspire to run the same kind of political operation, but they don't have the same Prussian precision that Kennedy's staff does," says a Hill aide who has worked for three senators.

"Kennedy uses staff people the way Pony Express riders used horses: Ride 'em hard and then leap to another horse," says Thomas M. Rollins, former staff director of the Labor Committee. "He's a genius at managing people." Kennedy's presidential ambitions once attracted bright young Democrats who envisioned themselves with big offices in the White House West Wing. Today the rewards must be found in fighting the good fight for liberal causes and working for a senator able to get things done. His staff is one of the Senate's largest, with nearly 100 professionals and several dozen interns and visiting fellows. Universally acclaimed for its competence, the staff is often suspected of being the driving force behind the senator's success; in truth, the relationship is symbiotic, an intimate bond of mutual benefit.

Consider, for example, the Bag. A battered black briefcase, the Bag for nearly three decades has been symbol and centerpiece of the Kennedy operation. Every afternoon the Bag is packed with the senator's homework for the evening. Material is sorted into four folders: Must Do, which includes staff memos -- usually one page, single-spaced -- on the following day's activities; Invitations; Signature Needed; selected Mail and Other Reading. (On average, 1,000 letters a day arrive in the Kennedy office and 1,000 letters go out.) In the morning, Kennedy hands the Bag to a secretary, who parcels out memos and other documents to the appropriate staffers. Scribbled in the margins are the senator's notations and marching orders, usually terse and barely legible: "see me" or "let's talk" or "o.k." or, if something displeases him, "ugh!"

"The Bag drives the whole operation," says one former staffer. "Some people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the protocol of the Bag." At least one staffer, for example, confesses to wondering whether it's best to submit a memo early in the day -- and risk having it pushed to the bottom of the Bag -- or wait until late afternoon and risk missing the Bag altogether.

Another legislative assistant, noting the competition that persists in lower staff echelons, adds, "I was putting stuff in the Bag cold, and then one day I noticed that others were using all kinds of stunts to get his attention: big check marks, or items circled with brightly colored marking pens, especially red and yellow, or writing 'Must Do' or 'Must Read' on their memos."

Even junior staff members get te~te-a`-te~te access to Kennedy -- "face time," in Hill argot -- though often it's while kneeling next to him in a hearing or during a brisk walk from the Capitol to the Russell Senate Office Building. "Plane time" is highly valued, since the senator is trapped on a jet without floor votes or other distractions. He also holds frequent "issue dinners" at his house, latter-day salons at which outside experts, staffers and other solons thrash out problems from South Africa to Latin debt.

"The trains seem to run on time. But people are left panting," one recently departed aide says. "What do they call it when the president goes from one place to another? A 'movement'? Well, Kennedy has movements. It's controlled chaos."

Over the years, some Kennedy aides have developed a private language. "Clutchers" are staffers who won't let go of the senator's coattails; "flutterers" are the miscellaneous hangers-on who always seem visible at any Kennedy event; "heavy lifting" is backroom political maneuvering; a "glide path" is the senator's route during a public event. Walking into a room full of well-tailored, WASP men, Kennedy has been heard to murmur, "T.M.B.S." -- "too many blue suits." On occasion he has used a code word for liquor -- "camera," derived from an old family joke.

"Kennedy staff people get a reputation for being very pushy and obnoxious," says a three-year veteran of the office. "You hear things coming out of your mouth at times that you can't believe you're saying. But the most respected trait on the staff is getting it done. No matter whose feathers you have to ruffle, just get it done."

'It Is Our Policy Never to Comment'

In mid-December Kennedy flies to Geneva. With other members of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group, he spends a long day in "the bubble" -- the secure vault of the U.S. mission -- listening to progress reports from American negotiators. That evening, the senators attend a festive dinner at the Hotel du Lac in Coppet, several kilometers from the city. Kennedy likes being in Switzerland, one of the few places where he's not constantly watched and judged; the insouciant Swiss let him remain relatively anonymous.

As the evening breaks up and the Americans head for a bus that will carry them back to Geneva, they notice Kennedy outside the restaurant in animated conversation with an exotic figure in long, black clerical robes. "Hey, fellas, come here," Kennedy calls, detaining his colleagues. "There's somebody I want you to meet. I'd like to introduce the patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church." The senators are accustomed to Kennedy's gregarious spontaneity; after a minute of amiable chatter, they turn to get on the bus -- all except Kennedy. "You go on without me," he says. "I've got friends in Lausanne." And he vanishes into the night.

Page 2

© 1990 The Washington Post

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar