Surprising Friendship: Ronald Reagan and the Kennedys

You might assume that knights of the right and knights of the left in American politics would have nothing but disdain and contempt for each other, and indeed that frequently seems to be the case. But Ronald Reagan, one “knight of the right,” had quite cordial and friendly relationships with the Kennedy family, particularly Ted Kennedy. As president, he traveled to Ted Kennedy’s McLean, Va. home to help raise money for the John. F. Kennedy Library.

The video above is a short and bitter excerpt from a speech by Ted Kennedy in the 1980 New York Primary when he was running against President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy won the primary but lost the nomination to Carter in a bitter fight. He mildly promised to support “the Democratic nominee” in the fall, but discontent with Carter on the left led to a landslide Reagan victory.

Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for Reagan, recalled the tribute Reagan gave to JFK. After praising the 35th president’s personal qualities and leadership skills, the 40th president acknowledged that he supported “the other fellow” (Richard Nixon, in the 1960 election). “But you know, it’s true: When the battle’s over and the ground is cooled, well, it’s then that you see the opposing general’s valor,” Reagan said. “He would have understood. He was fiercely, happily partisan, and his political fights were tough, no quarter asked and none given. But he gave as good as he got, and you could see that he loved the battle.” (Video of Reagan at Kennedy Library Fundraiser.)

As President, Reagan invited the Kennedy family to the White House to present the Medal of Freedom to Senator Robert Kennedy. It was a moving and unifying event for Democrats and Republicans.

In 2007, Ted Kennedy returned the favor by speaking rather admiringly of Reagan in an address at the Ronald Reagan Library. Indeed, it sometimes seemed that Ted Kennedy preferred Reagan as president to fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter, who he felt was cold, rigid, and did not listen.

Reagan “was always a good friend and a gracious foe,” Kennedy said. “He wanted to defeat his opponents, but not destroy them…”

“What we had in common was far greater than what divided us. It was the idea of America.”

Kennedy also praised Nancy Reagan as a “national treasure,” noting her support for federal funding of stem cell research. He also recalled working with the Reagan administration on immigration legislation that gave three million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

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