It is traditional, upon the passing of an important and famous person – however controversial – to find some good words to say. This is not an easy task in the case of Ted Kennedy, a man whose personal life ranged from alcoholism to debauchery to sexual harrassment to (sadly, uncharged) second-degree murder, and whose public career entailed the embrace of nearly every foolish, ruinous and cruel political idea of the past five decades and whose most enduring legacy is installing the bitterly polarized modern Supreme Court confirmation process.
But a few words are nonetheless in order to recognize the man’s work. Because what we can remember positively about Ted Kennedy is his role as a Senate workhorse – a role that Barack Obama might have been wiser to emulate.
Ted Kennedy arrived in the Senate in 1962, as soon as he was Constitutionally old enough to serve; aside from a Korean War-era non-combat tour in the Army, it was his first real job. Kennedy was a young man with fame, glamor and a fair amount of his family’s natural charm, but had done nothing of distinction with his life to that point; he’d inherited the seat as effectively a family heirloom, and a review of his life to that point – such as being suspended from college for cheating and a reckless driving arrest for leading cops on a 90 mph chase while in law school – would hardly have suggested a man likely to take seriously the work of a United States Senator.
Kennedy at that point could have taken a number of different turns. He could have become a Senate showhorse, making the rounds giving speeches and national TV appearances and doing little real work. He could have become one of Capitol Hill’s time-markers, coasting to re-elections while using his office as just a prop for the exhausing, booze-and-flooze nightlife he pursued for so many years. He could have decided that fame and glamor meant he deserved to run for President at the first available opportunity, and stayed far away from any of the real and often controversial work of making laws.
To Kennedy’s credit, he did none of those things. He hired the most aggressive, competent staffs on the Hill and immersed himself in the daily business of making laws. Boring bill markups, blathering conferences, wicked hangovers; Kennedy took them all and kept working, working even to the end. He learned how the sausage was made and the deals done, and made quite a lot of it himself. He waited 18 years to run for President, and did so only after compiling an extensive record of actual accomplishment in the Senate.
Kennedy’s influence waned after his unsuccessful 1980 run; that year ushered in an era in which Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of the next 28 years, and more or less controlled the Senate (to the extent the Senate is “controlled” by the majority party) for the better part of 17 of those 28 years. But with key committee seats and an energetic staff, he remained a player in important legislative business to the end, whether forging successful bipartisan compromises (as with No Child Left Behind in 2001) or fighting for unsuccessful ones (the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which failed even with the backing of President Bush). The harshness of Kennedy’s partisan rhetoric never left him unable to figure out how Beltway Republicans ticked and how to get them to the bargaining table; Republicans who worked with him testify unanimously to his Irish charm and personal grace.
Kennedy’s career could have been a cautionary tale for our current president, who might not have found himself in quite the fix he is in at the moment if he’d followed Ted’s example, bided his years, spent more time in the trenches doing the unglamorous work of legislating and taking the hard punches that must be taken to sell the product to the public, learning how the system works, why it works and who makes it work. Most of the changes Ted Kennedy made in this nation over his career were change for the worst – but he did, over time, make real change because he worked at it instead of just saying the word “change” and hoping it would be so.