Ted Kennedy’s Unheralded Accomplishments As History’s Most Effective US Senator

“The Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project, created in partnership with the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, is a compilation of interviews from current and former members of the Senate, House, administration officials, foreign leaders, Senate staff, issue advocates, journalists, family and friends documenting Senator Kennedy’s service.”

New details if not revelations have emerged into the life of Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the longest-serving and most powerful legislators in American history.


From “Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied Democrats in a GOP Senate,” a book by former Kennedy aides Nick Littlefield and David Nexon, we learn how, behind the scenes after the 1994 election, Kennedy stopped the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution in its tracks.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls this book “…hands down, the best book I have read about the inner dynamics of the United States Senate.”

After Republicans in 1994 took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946, Kennedy bucked up discouraged and demoralized Democrats like President Clinton who were almost ready to “compromise” with Gingrich, and instead found ways to divide and conquer the Republicans. Developing close relationships with Republican legislators, he thwarted the Gingrich agenda and passed progressive legislation.

“Even during the polarized environment of the Gingrich Congresses,” the authors write, “Kennedy was able, against all odds, to secure passage of a minimum wage increase, a ground-breaking health insurance reform bill, and the largest health entitlement expansion since Medicare and Medicaid—the Child Health Insurance Program.

“Kennedy was a master of energizing the public and the party. But two additional keys to his success are often lacking today. First, there were the strong personal relations that he built with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His partnership with Orrin Hatch is well known, but he was also able to strike up alliances on a wide range of issues with Republican senators as diverse as Strom Thurmond, Pete Domenici, and Trent Lott, among many others.”



From newly released documents and books, we learn about unheralded foreign policy achievements such as spotlighting the genocide in East Pakistanchampioning the independence of Bangladesh in the 1970s and helping negotiate peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

For nearly 50 years, Ted Kennedy played seminal roles in both domestic and foreign policy, from initiating aggressive research into the causes and prevention of cancer to the struggle for universal coverage, and changing immigration from a Eurocentrically-biased to a family-linked system.


From a new book by Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio, “A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” we learn about the key role Ted Kennedy played in the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the legislation’s intended and unintended consequences for millions of families.

Kennedy was also instrumental in working with the George H.W. Bush administation to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which called on employers to make “reasonable accommodation” to employees with disabilities, including addictions and mental disorders, as well as physical disabilities. This led to the growth of employee assistance programs. It was just one of many legislative accomplishments.


From a book by Craig Horowitz, we learn about “eleven milestones in the pursuit of social justice, 1965-2007,” led by Kennedy: The Immigration Reform Act of 1965; National Cancer Act of 1971; Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972; Campaign Finance Reform Act of 1974; Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986; Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; Family Medical Leave Act of 1993; Health Care Reform of 1996; Minimum Wage Act of 1996; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; and Immigration Reform Attempts of 2006-07.

Granted, some of this legislation has had mixed results and certainly did not solve problems for all time. Immigration policy is in dire need of another reform. Despite huge increases in federal research, cancer has not been cured.

Huge loopholes have been driven into campaign finance “reform,” and money seems to play as large a role as ever in American politics. South Africa, while avoiding the civil war over apartheid many thought inevitable, is hardly meeting its potential today. Medical leave, when unpaid, only makes life easier for a minority of eligible employees (European countries manage to give employees generous PAID leave.)

Kennedy later expressed grave disappointment that the George W. Bush administration did not follow up “No Child Left Behind” legislation with adequate funding to meet its goals.

Probably the most successful and far-reaching of Kennedy’s legislative accomplishments were Title IX, granting women equal educational and athletic opportunities, and the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (passed after his death), the full consequences of which are not yet fully known.

These books document Kennedy’s record as the most consequential senator in American history over five decades. Spending nearly one’s entire professional life in one job may not appeal to many, but Kennedy set the highest, rarest standard for significant accomplishment in Congress. It will be a long time — perhaps centuries — before anyone comes close to matching his record.

Those interested in less than high-minded Kennedy history can also learn new details about his relationship with alcohol, the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick accident, and his disastrous Roger Mudd interview on the eve of his 1980 presidential campaign.

The Edward Kennedy Institute and the University of Virginia Miller Center have released transcripts of dozens of oral histories on the half century of public life of the Senator from Massachusetts. The interviews offer candid insights and behind-the-scenes accounts of American politics for the 47 years Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate, plus his political and legal activism and personal life before that.


Additionally, the Senator’s son Patrick has published an autobiography, “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” It pays tribute to his father’s work in reducing discrimination in health insurance and employment against people with mental disabilities.

It also details his father’s “unprocessed trauma” after the assassinations of his brothers, the family’s fear if not terror that he would meet the same fate, his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and family attempts to intervene in his father’s abuse of alcohol in 1991. Addiction is a family disease, Patrick Kennedy writes, and is made worse when family members cover it up and do not confront it.

The stories of alcohol abuse have gotten the most media attention from Patrick’s book, although it has long been known that Kennedy used alcohol to dull many painful events in his life, and at times engaged in self-destructive drinking.  He confessed to this in his own autobiography, True Compass.  He still managed a life of enormous accomplishment, maintained fierce loyalties with many friends, associates and former staffers, and indicated the excessive drinking stopped when he married Victoria Reggie in 1992.

In a radio interview that was revealing about the inner workings of the Kennedy family, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came to the defense of both Patrick and his Uncle Teddy. But between the lines, he also indicates that the common description of Teddy as “surrogate father” to all his fatherless nieces and nephews wasn’t really true. With a demanding job, he really didn’t have time to father all those children. RFK Jr. says:

“Patrick talks about an intervention that he participated in, where Teddy walked out. Many of us participated, that year, in interventions with Uncle Teddy. More than a dozen of us from two generations were involved in various coordinated interventions. My own experience was a very good one with Teddy.  I flew to Washington to talk to him, and he responded very positively, and he was both grateful and gracious. In the end, I think, a combination of all those interventions and his subsequent marriage to Vicky really helped to change the way that he interacted with the world, and the way that he used alcohol.  He never stopped, which, of course, we all advocated. But he moderated his drinking, so that after 1992, it was no longer causing a serious problem in his life.

“I think everybody in my generation, at various times, had anger at Teddy, but over time, we all forgave him.  We knew that he was crushed by my father’s death, by the deaths of his three older brothers. He was left raising twenty fatherless children, my eleven brothers and sisters, John Kennedy’s two children, Peter Lawford’s four children, plus three of his own. He never missed our birthdays. He attended all our weddings. He was at all every graduation.  He returned every phone call and almost always within the hour.”

Before the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the 1980s, American culture winked and laughed at alcohol abuse in the workplace, and even at drunk driving, and mental illness was widely misunderstood, shamed and stigmatized as a moral failure rather than a brain disease. One needs only to watch episodes of the popular television show Mad Men for examples of this. Edward Kennedy grew up in this culture and it was particularly prevalent in the Irish-American community.

In one interview, recorded in 2005, Ted Kennedy told an amusing and appalling story about his first case as a 29-year-old assistant district attorney in Massachusetts, working for one dollar a year prior to running for the Senate in 1962.

His first assignment as an assistant D.A. was prosecuting a drunk driving case. The evidence against the defendant, named Sullivan, was overwhelming, but Kennedy quickly discovered it wasn’t going to be easy to win a conviction:

The third day I was in the office, I tried my first case. I had studied the evidence hard, and I had read all of [Clarence] Darrow’s final arguments. I had to change them since I was prosecuting, but he had some wonderful, wonderful passages in there. So I went in to try this case, and they handed the folder to a public defender as they walked into the trial. I thought, This poor fellow doesn’t have a chance.

The offense was that he was drunk and smashed into a car in Kenmore Square. He had gone to the Red Sox game when they played the Yankees, and after the Red Sox won the double-header, he went to the Little Brown Jug and had 26 drinks. I had his bar bill and the waitress. Then he drove into Kenmore Square and banged into this car, and when he fell out of his car, he was glassy-eyed and unsteady on his feet—enough to convict anyone. I had the policeman who arrested him.

They never put any witness on. They never made any representation. So the final argument came, and this fellow stood up and said, Sullivan over here has been working since he was twelve years old. And I was wondering, What does that have to do with it? And he looked up at me a little bit, and then the jury all looked at me. And then he said, His principal crime today is that he cheered for the Boston Red Sox. And I saw the jury smile, all of them smile. It was just a shame that he cheered for them, and with his great, great enthusiasm, perhaps he had one too many. I think most of us can understand that, when the Red Sox win.

I thought, Oh, my God, what does this have to do with anything? He said,He’s a carpenter, and if he’s convicted today, he will lose his automobile license. He needs the automobile license in order to go from job to job. If he loses his automobile license, then he’s going to be on welfare, and he has seven children. It’s going to cost the taxpayers of Suffolk Country $1,500 a month to support him if he’s convicted.

I thought I saw half the jury looking at this, and looking at old Sullivan with sympathetic eyes. He was looking down at the ground. He said, I don’t think Sullivan deserves that. And about half the jury, when he mentioned Sullivan, went like this. He said, My name is Bobby Stanziani, and I saw the other half of the jury go like this.

Twenty-six minutes, not guilty.

Less than a decade later, Kennedy himself would be involved in a case of negligent if not reckless driving, probably under the influence of alcohol, in which his passenger would drown, and he would fail to report the accident for eight hours. One might say he received the same “compassion.” He received a suspended sentence, and lost his driver’s license for three years.

Kennedy aide Dun Gifford recalled his role in the Chappaquiddick incident, confirming that Mary Jo Kopechne drowned almost immediately after the car submerged and her body showed no signs of struggle to get out of the car alive. (Click.)

Future prospective candidates for office might want to read the backstory on Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign — how he dropped from overwhelming favorite to loser, why he was so unprepared for the infamous interview with Roger Mudd of CBS News, in which he couldn’t seem to explain why he wanted to be president. In the UVA Miller Center transcript, Kennedy recalled:

I mentioned just yesterday one of the searing events was this Roger Mudd interview. The background on that was that Roger Mudd and Dan Rather were in a contest to see who was going to be the anchor on CBS. Roger Mudd had been a social friend, particularly to the Robert Kennedys. I knew him, but he was not a personal friend of mine. I’d see him out at the Robert Kennedys’.

At the time—we think it was in June of that year—when the President of Mexico [José López Portillo y Pacheco] was in New York, I had the chance to meet him about ten at night at the Waldorf-Astoria. After I met him and walked out, Roger Mudd was there. He said, “I’m in this contest with Dan Rather, and I’d love to get an interview with your mother.” I said, “Well, my mother doesn’t do interviews. She’s older; she just doesn’t do interviews. But let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.” He said, “It would make a big, big difference if I could ever do that interview down at Cape Cod. Everybody’s always wanted that interview with your mother.”

So I talked to my mother and my sisters about it, and decided that he could do the interview with Mother walking, but I’d have to be with her. He could talk with her a bit, she could chat and talk a bit, but we just didn’t want to have a sit-down or only Mother. He said that was fine. I said, “Our children are going to be there, so that’s going to be the setting.” He said, “That’s fine.”

Now, just before the time, in September, my mother got sick and went to Boston… So it’s only Patrick [Kennedy] and me.

So I said to Roger, “This interview isn’t going to work, because my mother’s not here, the others aren’t here.” “Oh, no,” he said. “That’ll be all right. I’ll come on down. We’ll do you and the sea and Cape Cod, and what the sea has meant.” I could talk about that, and my brother learning to swim, and then fighting in the water and coming back, and using the sea as a place of repose and thought and rest, and what this place all meant to him and the family.

So down he comes and sets up at Squaw Island, and the only two people there are Patrick and me. I have no staff, no nothing, because we’re just going to talk about the sea. We talk about the sea, and we look at the time. I say, “That’s about it.” And he says, “Yes, just about.” And I say, “Patrick, why don’t you go down and get the boat and pick me up, and I’ll just get these people out of the house.”

So then he said, “Can we do one more film?” I said, “Well, I’d really like to go. I think we’ve done it.” “No,” he said. I had to do one more. And then we got into whether you’re going to run for President, and what’s your view about all this. I had made up my mind. I sensed that Patrick’s down there by himself. He’s 12 years old; he’s bringing the boat in, saying, “What in the world is this all about?” knowing that I’m not prepared.

It was a disaster. I remember getting on the boat afterwards with Patrick and telling him it was a disaster, and calling Mudd and saying, “Look, if we’re going to do this thing, I ought to get another crack at that thing.”

No. No way, José. And they ran that part on the November—you know, whatever.

YoungThere was considerably more to that interview, wasn’t there, than was actually broadcast?

KennedyOh, there was a lot. Yes, I had talked to him for 40 minutes just about the sea, and about how we learned to swim here, and the sailing here, and it was because of that he was able to save people’s lives, and he came back here, and how the sea is sort of a metaphor of life, and my life— You know, all of these things I had thought through, and knew what my brother said. But it was this last part that he was in for.

That was on September 29, the interview. Not aired until November 4, which was the hostage crisis, and then I declared on the 7th. At that time, they knew I was going to declare, and he has all these answers from five weeks before.

Young Why was the timing of the release—?

KennedyIt suited their interests. I was a hot item at that time, and he was going to have the jump. They knew by that time I was going to announce for President. “Here’s Kennedy. He wants to be President. This is what he had to say.” But I didn’t have much to say.

Young Were there any understandings about when this would air?

Kennedy Well, no, I never understood that that was going to be a part of it in any event. It was all going to be about the Kennedys and Cape Cod.

YoungIt was kind of a dirty trick.

KennedyWell, we’ve just swallowed over the years, and you have to be smart enough if you’re going to do an interview. I certainly am now. You have things all worked out with your professional staff, and you have a very clear idea. They can ask whatever questions, but what is the purpose of the interview, and what is it going to be about? Then you can go on. We go with Tim Russert and do all the Sunday programs, and they can ask whatever the hell they want and we’re ready for it, but you know at least the framework and where these things are going.

Upon reading this account, Mudd insisted that Kennedy’s retelling of the setup to the interview was inaccurate, “a fantasy,” that he never wanted an interview with Rose Kennedy, and never deceived Kennedy or his staff as to the nature of the interview he requested. What’s clear is that Kennedy under-estimated the importance of the interview and was unprepared for it, which he clearly acknowledged.

My own view is that Kennedy’s disastrous mistakes — Chappaquiddick in 1969 and the Roger Mudd interview in 1979 — had little long-term historical impact. He would have lost in 1972 and/or 1980 even if he had been the Democratic nominee, because he would have run against extremely formidable Republicans (Nixon and Reagan). By 1980, his grandiose vision for presidential leadership and economic intervention — wage and price controls to stem inflation, strict regulation of oil and gas prices, government-created job programs to achieve “full employment” — were probably out of sync with the more free market and laissez faire economic beliefs of even some Democrats at the time.

Slender Threads — What If’s of History — Ted Kennedy

Drill Deeper:


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