The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
 Main Story
  Why Ted Kennedy Can't Stand Still   Continued from Page 1

Kennedy's nocturnal ramblings and other personal habits have been the subject of uncommon public interest since a young woman died in his car beneath the bridge at Chappaquiddick more than 20 years ago. Tales of his drinking and raffish behavior have become part of his public persona, often lumped under a vaster damnation known as "the character issue." Whether this eventually will undermine his power and influence on the Hill -- as it has chopped away his presidential prospects -- only time and Kennedy's future behavior can determine.

He appears to compartmentalize his off-duty conduct and his Senate responsibilities; during dozens of interviews for this article, with friends and foes, not one could cite an instance in which drinking appeared to impair him professionally. His adversaries grumble about it anyway; friends portray it as relatively harmless and charming.

Orrin Hatch, the conservative Utah Republican who is also a Mormon, tells this story with what he describes as "a tremendous brotherly affection." Two days before the Senate adjourned in October 1988, Hatch took a call from Frank Madsen, a former aide who had moved to Boston to supervise 200 young Mormon missionaries. Would Hatch come speak to them? Would he bring Kennedy? Would he ask Kennedy to reserve Faneuil Hall for the event?

With some misgivings, Hatch agreed to try. Shortly before midnight, he found Kennedy and Chris Dodd in the Capitol. Neither was feeling any pain.

"Ted, I've got a favor to ask."

Kennedy wrapped an arm around Hatch. "Done!"

Hatch held up a restraining hand. "No, hear me out. You remember my aide, Frank Madsen -- "

"Great fellow! Great fellow!"

"He's now in Boston -- "

"My home town! My home town!"

Hatch eventually made his request. Kennedy assented. Hatch returned to his office, typed out the agreement and sent it to Kennedy's office. The next day, Hatch spied Kennedy reading the memo. "Orrin," Kennedy called in mock horror, "what else did I agree to?" Three months later, in January 1989, Hatch and Kennedy stood elbow-to-elbow in Faneuil Hall, addressing the Mormon missionaries.

Yet Kennedy also has a knack for embarrassing himself in public. He was: caught in flagrante delicto with a female luncheon companion on the floor of La Brasserie restaurant in 1987; photographed last summer atop a comely brunette on a boat in St-Tropez; observed with Dodd in 1985 as they smashed each other's autographed pictures in La Colline restaurant on Capitol Hill; involved in a barroom scuffle last winter at 2 a.m. with a heckler in Manhattan. Queries about the senator's behavior have become so commonplace that one Kennedy press secretary reportedly kept a card on his desk with a standard response: "It is our policy never to comment on this endless gossip and speculation."

Such episodes provide ample ammunition for the senator's political antagonists. "He has been utterly shameless, brazen and indifferent to what should be his internal conscience," says Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus. "People in public life have a responsibility to behave in a certain way that can be respected and emulated by children and ordinary citizens."

Without question, Kennedy likes to drink. During a two-hour stretch on a Lufthansa flight from Boston to West Germany in November, he downed two drinks of Scotch, two of vodka and, with dinner, three glasses of red wine. After three hours of sleep, the senator appeared sharp and refreshed upon arriving in Frankfurt at dawn, and subsequently put in a full day of work. He also is disciplined enough to stop drinking during his annual winter diet; last year, for example, he lost 50 pounds in 49 days, imbibing little more than a weight-loss concoction he refers to as "chocolate goop."

Theories abound, both sympathetic and condemnatory: that Kennedy is a binge drinker trying to forget the pain of the past; that he is an inveterate risk-taker compelled to live on the edge (although, as one acquaintance put it, "a risk for Ted Kennedy isn't the same as a risk for Evel Knievel; it's drinking at La Colline and busting a few pictures"); that his incessant pursuit of women reveals, as writer Suzannah Lessard charged in 1979, "a severe case of arrested development, a kind of narcissistic intemperance."

The wine-and-women lifestyle can undercut Kennedy's authority and leave him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Last year, when the nomination of John Tower to be defense secretary turned into a referendum on extracurricular behavior, no senator kept his head lower than Kennedy -- to the point that it became a joke on the Senate floor and in the press gallery. Kennedy offered a brief statement of sympathy for "the unseemly treatment" Tower was enduring. His subsequent vote against the nomination was predicated on conflict of interest charges against Tower; in a 16-paragraph explanation of his vote, Kennedy made only one passing reference to "serious allegations about alcohol abuse."

Kennedy is not enlightening when discussing morality and his private behavior. He professes to ignore accounts of his drinking and womanizing, though an aide says he was "quite upset" by the Gentlemen's Quarterly article. Asked whether such portraits diminish his effectiveness in the Senate, he says, "No, I don't think so"; his colleagues, he adds, will judge him on the basis of the man they know rather than the man they read about.

Asked whether there should be a different standard for a John Tower than for a sitting U.S. senator, he skirts the question and notes that standards are "evolving in terms of private morality, as well as financial kinds of disclosure." This, he says, is "in the interest of the country." It isn't clear how he feels, other than uncomfortable and somewhat exasperated. "I try to focus on what there is to do today and tomorrow," he adds and, as if to prove the point and change the subject, he recites five or six legislative issues before him.

Because he's a Kennedy, his shortcomings are scrutinized relentlessly: The hazard of surviving to the age of 58 is that he's constantly compared to the martyred Kennedy princes, who will remain forever young. Many Americans, perhaps subconsciously, seem to resent him as a reminder of shattered dreams and a lost Camelot. His virtues -- as a hard-working senator, a loving father, a voice for social justice -- can be overshadowed by boorish behavior in ways that his brothers never had to face.

Friends are quick to rally round and counterattack. "I don't think anyone could look at his record of public achievement and personal adversity -- personal sorrow -- without coming away with great respect for his character," says former senator John Culver of Iowa, a close Kennedy confidant since their school days at Harvard. "He has pursued some of these causes for 25 years or more -- isn't that character? The integrity and perseverence of his positions -- isn't that character?"

But Kennedy's critics can also ask rhetorical questions, as one South African newspaper headline did during the senator's visit in 1985: "He's Teaching Us Morals?"

Climbing Onto the Barricades

In mid-afternoon on November 14, Kennedy arrives at the Sheraton Washington ballroom for what his staff calls a "red meat" event -- in this case, a speech to the annual AFL-CIO convention. Delegates are seated by profession: ironworkers, grain millers, teachers, actors and artists, laborers. Their applause builds from vigorous to thunderous as the senator leans over the podium and wags his finger to admonish various ne'er-do-wells who stand in the way of liberty, equality, fraternity. In succession, he upbraids Eastern Airlines Chairman Frank Lorenzo, then President Bush, then the "high-paid lobbyists with their $300 shoes and $600 suits" who are blocking a program of national health insurance.

"Child care, parental leave, decent health care, safety in the workplace," he concludes. "These are your issues. These are my issues. Are you going to stand with us?" The delegates rise for a sixth and final standing ovation. With a farewell wave, Kennedy bounds from the stage and out the ballroom door, his face as damp and flushed as if he had been swimming. Hurrying through the lobby, he mops his forehead with a white handkerchief, peels off his suit jacket and disappears into the front seat of a waiting car.

AMONG HUMAN VIRTUES, Kennedy rates loyalty very high. For nearly 30 years, he has been a faithful standard bearer for the very young and very old, for immigrants and refugees, for blacks and American Indians and blue-collar workers. For the most part, these constituencies have repaid the allegiance. An Ebony poll in 1988 found that the magazine's black readers trusted Kennedy more than any other white American. "We've always found him to be a consistent champion," adds NAACP chief Washington lobbyist Althea T.L. Simmons. Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, says, "I think Kennedy really represents the best expression of somebody on the Hill who's worried about people issues and worker issues and is doing something about it."

Kennedy sees himself now as more tolerant, patient, pragmatic -- "finally hitting my stride." In recent years, he has elevated his native gift for getting along with older men -- a "ninth-child talent," someone once called it -- into a potent knack for coalition building. He and Hatch, hardly organized labor's best friend, joined forces to overcome White House opposition in 1988 and pass into law a bill that prohibits most employers from using polygraph tests on workers or job applicants. Last summer, Kennedy spent hours meeting with White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Senate Republicans to reach a compromise on the Americans With Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination against 43 million Americans with physical or mental handicaps.

He can bluster with the best for causes he champions. During one floor tirade on the plant closings bill in 1987, aide Tom Rollins slipped him a note: "Sir, you're shouting." And when he perceives a threat to the interests of Massachusetts, he can be a parochial pest. Several years ago, as the Armed Services Committee wrestled with weighty decisions about attack submarines and nuclear bombers, Kennedy kept harping on an Army proposal to remove a military band from Fort Devens, Mass., which he suspected was part of a scheme to close the base. "Ah, c'mon, guys," he pleaded, much to the amusement of his colleagues, "let me keep my band." In the end, the band stayed -- and Fort Devens remains open. Perhaps Kennedy's greatest asset in the Senate is persistence. "There's more than one way to skin that cat," he often tells the staff. In the late 1970s, he labored to fashion an 880-page bill that restructured the U.S. criminal code, only to see the proposal die in the House; six years later, after being thwarted repeatedly, he finally succeeded in finessing many of the provisions into law, including sentencing and bail reform.

"It's true that he's nothing if not persistent," says one senior Bush administration official. "Eventually he will succeed in a lot of these issues."

But on others, the jury is still out. In the 1980s, Kennedy tried to modify the liberal agenda by shifting costs away from the federal treasury to businesses; his most ambitious effort in this vein involves mandatory, employer-financed health insurance, a proposal which thus far -- to Kennedy's great frustration -- has failed to muster sufficient political support. He also acknowledges responsibility for creating and sustaining some of the liberal social programs -- CETA is one example -- that eventually collapsed in failure. During the Reagan presidency, Kennedy at times was reduced to rear-guard skirmishing in a futile effort to slow the conservative Republican juggernaut.

On those occasions when he digs in for a pitched battle -- or, in Kennedy's phrase, climbs "onto the barricades" -- the result can be bloody and controversial. Less than an hour after President Reagan announced on July 1, 1987, that Judge Robert Bork was his choice to replace retiring Justice Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court, Kennedy appeared on the Senate floor to fire his opening salvo. "Robert Bork's America," he warned in a statement largely written by chief legislative aide Carey Parker, "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, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution," and so forth.

"He maligned Bork," says Hatch. "What he did was disgraceful. I felt it was hitting below the belt."

Kennedy and his staff defend the speech as accurate and legitimate, but some critics sharply disagree. "He just told a bunch of lies at the outset, things that were totally untrue about Judge Bork, and that was it," says former attorney general Edwin Meese III. "I think {Kennedy} has a lot of ability . . . I know on the personal level he has real compassion. That's why I'm particularly concerned when his dark side comes out."

Call it what you will, the floor statement was masterful political theater. Kennedy was warning other senators -- inherently disposed to support such a distinguished nominee -- "to jump at your peril" onto the Bork bandwagon, according to an aide. "You've got to get their attention," one former senator explained recently. "Sure, there was hyperbole and distortion. But you're not going to get anyone's attention by whispering, 'Maybe we should take a look at this guy's record.' "

For four months, Bork preoccupied Kennedy. Working the phones relentlessly, the senator called scores of labor leaders, family allies, anybody who owed him a political chit. A political think tank provided a computer tape of names and addresses of the nation's 6,200 black elected officials, who subsequently received a letter from Kennedy urging them "to join me in actively opposing the nomination."

Before the August recess, Kennedy asked staffers Carolyn Osolinik and Jeff Blattner to prepare an inch-thick briefing book on Bork, which he sent to a dozen or so "likely undecideds" in the Senate. In contrast to his foghorn public rhetoric, Kennedy's private pitch to other senators tended to be low-key, respectful, deferential. "I think you might be interested in this," he would say, sidling up to a colleague. "I'm going to send you some material. Will you read it over the recess?" The Kennedy press office, involved in near-daily strategy sessions once the hearings began, issued reams of releases and "fact sheets" on Bork's record; when polling results suggested a deep public reluctance to "turn back the clock" on civil liberties, that theme became a central motif in the anti-Bork campaign.

In his public questioning of Bork, Kennedy was forceful and well-prepared -- if inclined to preface his queries with populist assertions and accusations. Working with Judiciary Chairman Joseph Biden, he helped structure the hearings and shape the prime arguments against the nominee. And when Democrats recognized that Bork was contributing to his own destruction with a limp performance in front of national television cameras, Kennedy adroitly persuaded some of the more rabid anti-Bork groups to lie low. "We realized that the worst thing we could do at that point was to confirm the right wing's charge of special interests undermining the good judge's reputation," one Senate staffer recalls.

In the end, it wasn't close. On October 6, 1987, the Judiciary Committee recommended, 9 to 5, that the Senate reject the Bork nomination. On October 23, the Senate did so, 58 to 42.

Some Kennedy admirers see his performance not only in terms of his political credo, but also as appealing to a temperament that enjoys an uphill fight. Jim Flug, who worked for Kennedy in the 1960s and '70s, recalls, "He would ask whether anybody else planned to vote against something. If there were five or six nay votes, he wouldn't be very excited. But if he was alone or almost alone, that excited him." 'The Kennedy Eisenhower' On a morning in mid-November, Kennedy convenes the Labor Committee to review the American decline in math and science education. The Dirksen hearing room is a world of wainscoting and marble, of leather chairs and Hermes neckties; heavy green drapes screen out the bright sunlight. Kennedy reads an opening statement quickly, then gestures to a large chart on his right, labeled, "SEE as a Percent of NSF Budget -- Percent of Foreign Engineering PhDs." "This chart is self-explanatory," he says. It is not.

Thirteen Senate staff members form a tableau along the wall behind the chairman, who is the only senator present except for the first witness, Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Kennedy and Hatfield make nice to one another. Then Carl Sagan moves to the witness chair to lament that less than half of all Americans know that the Earth moves around the sun and takes a year to do so. Kennedy flawlessly tells a funny joke about a schoolteacher in Louisiana; he follows up by asking Sagan a long, rambling question, then a short, rambling question: "What should we be asking of scientists trying to make the subject kinda interesting and kinda relative?"

THOSE WHO ONLY HAVE HEARD Kennedy deliver a stump speech or a 15-second sound bite often are surprised to find that he can be frightfully inarticulate. (The infamous Roger Mudd interview in 1980 gave a fair sampling of this.) Off the stump he can be alternately silver-throated and incomprehensible -- sometimes within the same sentence.

At times Kennedy seems to speak a personal dialect, his mind skipping like a flat rock across a lake while his language lumbers behind, jettisoning verbs and syntax in the effort. Aides refer to "Kennedyspeak" and "the Kennedy Eisenhower." Press secretaries have joked about stocking "a closet of unused verbs" that interviewers can rummage through after a baffling Q&A session with the senator. Even reading from a TelePrompTer occasionally can be problematic. Once, while practicing a speech asserting that the Republicans had made "a desert of our dreams," Kennedy kept saying "dessert of our dreams" and finally asked an aide to draw a small palm tree above "desert" as a mnemonic device.

"Sometimes it will be hilarious when he's working a roomful of people -- 'Hi, there! How are you?' -- and under his breath he'll be muttering instructions to his staff people who can't understand him," says one former aide. "And they'll be wandering around asking each other, 'What was that? What did he say?' "

As with everything else about Kennedy, his language inspires theories: that as the youngest of nine children he had trouble getting a word in edgewise; that the Kennedy siblings developed a family shorthand, inaccessible to outsiders; that his indulgent parents never required him to form a complete thought before speaking; that he's thinking three steps ahead of the conversation.

Impatient listeners can be savage. Columnist William Safire in September 1987 called Kennedy "an overstuffed empty suit" who is "unable to function without a text prepared by his talented staff because he cannot articulate his thoughts or because his own thoughts lack profundity." Safire likened the senator to one of T.S. Eliot's "hollow men, gesture without motion."

Yet despite the often dreadful diction, Kennedy communicates. With body language, with hands that constantly sculpt and coax, with outrage and sympathy, he manages to convey the gist of his message. In a Judiciary hearing in early February, he relentlessly pursued drug czar William J. Bennett on the subject of imported assault rifles. "Why are you silent? Why are you quiet?" Kennedy demanded, pressing the exchange until the normally self-assured Bennett was reduced to flustered confusion.

In Sparta, Ga., before Christmas, Kennedy held a hearing in the county library on rural health problems. The first witness was an impoverished woman named Joan Baity, who described how her father had died, how her husband had divorced her, how she spent all day, every day, nursing an incontinent and violent mother stricken with Alzheimer's disease. "I need some help," she pleaded. "Someway, somehow, I need some help." The testimony moved many in the audience to tears.

Kennedy listened intently, head canted, mouth slightly ajar in concentration. When Baity finished, he mumbled several questions, then paused for a moment, swiveled toward the audience and in a firm voice declared: "If we cannot try to deal with that kind of an issue and problem as a society, and do it in a way that is fair and just, we have to really ask about our whole sense of humanity and decency . . . Who among us would change places and cope with this?"

His words were spontaneous and powerful, challenging the conscience of every man and woman within earshot -- a town crier, raising alarums about the enemy within. The sentences may not parse cleanly, but the message is clear.

Less clear is Kennedy's larger message about the nation's future. As he declared in a speech at Yale University last spring, Kennedy admires Ronald Reagan "because he stood for a set of ideas . . . he had something to communicate." The Democrats lost the presidential race in 1988, he believes, "because there was no compelling Democratic message . . . Competence was not enough. Ideology -- which is about ideas -- was missing."

Yet Kennedy still gropes to articulate his. He speaks of "convincing the people that you want to be able to do more with less," of discovering "ways that we can still stay committed to these fundamental values, but do it in different ways." He may be "the conscience of the party," as Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown contends, but these are not exactly phrases that electrify the imagination. When asked how Democrats can "move beyond the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society," as Kennedy says they must, the senator replies, "We ought to be in a more important and dramatic way focusing on the minimum standards of decency in terms of the quality of life for working men and women."

"Minimum standards of decency?" That's the ideology Democrats are going to ride to the White House? he is asked. Kennedy shrugs and replies, "There are some that would agree and some that would differ." A World He Has Made His Own KENNEDY'S OFFICE, HIS HOUSE, HIS CAP- itol hideaway, all are shrines in remembrance of things past. Every wall, every corner, is occupied by photographs and relics. Frozen in time, they effect a tranquil melancholy that contrasts vividly with the motion and commotion of his life.

In his reception vestibule in the Russell Building hang photos of the senator with Rose, with Jack and Bobby, with his children. (In his former office, in a similar room, one day in December 1980, John W. Hinckley, armed with a pistol, waited in vain for Kennedy to show up, according to Gregory Craig, a Hinckley attorney who later worked as a Kennedy assistant.) Behind the senator's desk in the main office stands the American flag carried in JFK's funeral and a presidential flag that flew at the JFK White House. Above the mantle hangs a framed note from the 14-year-old JFK to his parents, asking to be godfather to the newborn Edward. (The request was granted.) Another flag with the Kennedy crest -- three gold helmets against a black background -- stands near the marble fireplace, facing a framed note from Rose dated June 8, 1972: "Dear Teddy, I noticed as I skimmed through the book 'The Education of Edward Kennedy' that you are quoted as using the word 'ass' in several expressions. I do not think you should use that word." Across from the photos of Gorbachev and Reagan and Giscard and Brandt and Aquino and Tutu hang JFK's Navy dog tags.

In recent years, Kennedy has found it easier to make public reference to the tragedies that stain his life. But sometimes the scar tissue rips away. In November 1983, the night before a memorial Mass at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown marking the 20th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination, he stopped abruptly while rehearsing his remarks and stalked in sorrow and anger down the aisle and out of the church. In 1986, at a House luncheon celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Kennedy again faltered during his speech. Waving a hand in front of his face as though trying to claw away the pain, he turned, left the podium and walked back to his Senate office alone, several staff members trailing at a respectful distance.

His hideaway, a small office on the third floor of the Capitol, boasts a marble fireplace reputedly used by the British to light their torches when they burned the building in 1814. On the mantle sit photographs of brother Joe and sister Kathleen, both killed in the 1940s. A hardwood desk, used first by Kennedy's father as ambassador to the Court of St. James, then by John and Robert in the Senate, is pushed against one wall, near pictures of Kennedy's 50-foot sailboat, the Maya.

Just east, beyond the heavy door, lies the Senate chamber and a world Edward Kennedy has made his own, building a record of legislative accomplishment far more durable than his brothers'. It is an arena of triumphs and debacles and a legacy still half-built, still awaiting history's rendering.

In the other direction, looking west through the tall windows, the senator has a stunning vista of the federal city and the great republic beyond. Two miles down the Mall, past the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool, Lincoln stares back from his throne. Pivoting slightly to the right, Kennedy can see the broad sweep of Pennsylvania Avenue: beyond the Canadian Embassy and the National Archives, beyond the FBI and the Treasury to the white mansion at the bend in the road, to the house where, perhaps, he was never meant to live.

Rick Atkinson writes for the investigative unit of The Post. Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.

Back to Page 1

© 1990 The Washington Post

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar