State of Grace

By Jon Keller | Boston Magazine |

One dreary morning last February, Michael Sullivan sat in his Brockton office contemplating the daunting task of ridding Massachusetts of 38-year incumbent U.S. Senator Edward Moore Kennedy. Sullivan is not political chump change. At age 45, with five years as the popular district attorney of Plymouth County already in the bank, he’s one of the few visible stars in the black hole that is the Massachusetts Republican Party these days. A bright, articulate Irish-Catholic lad from the South End, Sullivan is on a short list of likely future GOP candidates for higher office: Congress, perhaps, or even the governorship, should Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift get caught forcing her state police bodyguard to take her kid to Gymboree.    

But unseating Ted Kennedy? The last surviving link to the martyred brothers? The liberal lion who defied the national Republican tide in 1994 by trouncing an opponent straight from central casting—Mitt Romney? The legendary legislator beatified in a new biography by veteran New York Times Washington correspondent Adam Clymer as "not just the leading senator of his time, but…one of the greats in its history"?

"He’s got money, all he needs," sighs Sullivan. "And you’re dealing with a huge political base. You’re dealing with half a century of a family name that is highly regarded and well-respected, especially in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."  

So why even bother? "Change is healthy," insists Sullivan. "I expect to talk about the benefits of change and how that might be positive for people."

Yes, change is healthy all right. And as Sullivan points out, the last time Ted was up for re-election, the full force of Kennedy’s local and national political army was required to fend off Romney. Nonetheless, 42 percent of Massachusetts voters ignored all the pro-Kennedy hype and "voted for change." Concludes Sullivan: "I think you can develop a message to improve on that by another eight percentage points."   

Or at least you can try. But what if the change voters want has already been undertaken—by Ted Kennedy himself?

Runaway weight problem aside, the Ted on your ballot this fall is not the same figure who proved such a fat target for Romney six years ago. It’s a cliché to note Kennedy’s improved social behavior and apparent contentment since his July 1992 marriage to Victoria Reggie, but it’s also been that long since his drinking and wenching were in the news. Without the tabloid storyline as subtext, Kennedy’s tortured public persona has noticeably mellowed. At 68, he no longer remotely resembles the aloof playboy of yesteryear. Like much of the state he represents, Kennedy is aging, bloated, and dumpy-looking, a fact that makes easy sport for die-hard Kennedy haters but gives him, for the first time, something visibly in common with many constituents.    

Professionally, Ted has shed some old stereotypes about his priorities which might have cost him votes by giving more attention to local concerns and staking out issues with broad populist appeal. And in perhaps the most striking transformation of all, the man once reviled by working-class Catholics for abandoning them on issues from abortion to busing, a secular scoundrel who seemed the antithesis of his ultradevout mother, Rose, has reinvented himself in a revered Catholic image—that of a secular sinner who sought and found spiritual redemption.

Says longtime Kennedy friend Peter Meade: "In a way, he’s become a lot like Rose."

Before that improbable allegory became possible,
it was Kennedy’s senatorial act that needed cleaning up. When he first ran for the Senate seat vacated by John Kennedy, his campaign slogan was a nepotic "He Can Do More for Massachusetts." Oops. In Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, Clymer reports that JFK had a succinct response to one of Ted’s early pleas for federal aid to Massachusetts: "Tough shit." And while Ted, by all accounts, successfully cultivated his Senate colleagues, his local ties languished. As late as 1980, the entire Democratic leadership of the Massachusetts House eagerly endorsed Jimmy Carter for president over their not-so-favorite son. Meade recalls a top Beacon Hill Democrat saying of Kennedy, "I don’t think I’ve ever met the man."   

But traumatic changes in Washington ended that malaise. Since House Speaker Tip O’Neill retired in 1987 and the Republican congressional takeover of 1994 (which stripped the rest of the delegation of much of its clout), Kennedy has become the undisputed go-to guy for Massachusetts interests in the capital. "He is the best quarterback for cities and towns, and his staff is the best offensive line in Washington," says Geoffrey Beckwith of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Michael Widmer of the business-funded Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation says in light of the state’s reliance on federal funds for research, health care, and public works projects like the Big Dig, Ted has been "a one-person economic engine for the state." Even Swift, a Republican, lauds Kennedy as someone the Cellucci administration has "worked extensively with."

For the most part, Kennedy’s labor in recent years has not been glamour-boy work on big-picture stuff. It’s been cajoling the likes of Trent Lott into backing off a bit on cuts in Central Artery funding, which "would have been much worse without Senator Kennedy," says Widmer. It’s slipping a last-minute amendment into a "Citizen’s Right to Know" bill that allows Massachusetts to exceed federal requirements for warning labels on toxic products. It’s dragging his bad back and sagging corpus from Washington to Beacon Hill to promote a teaching method that combines academics with community service.  

Kennedy’s national image may still be that of, in Clymer’s words, "a doctrinaire liberal, a spokesman…for a cause whose time has gone." But here at home, where old people struggle to pay for prescription drugs and low-wage workers piece together multiple jobs just to get by, Kennedy’s agenda doesn’t seem so ideological or dated. His militancy for health-care reform, however incremental, and an upwardly mobile minimum wage puts him squarely in the populist political mainstream these days, says Cambridge-based GOP political consultant Charles Manning, who did his best to paint Kennedy as an out-of-touch knee-jerker when he helped manage Romney’s challenge in 1994. "When Clinton talks about the minimum wage during the State of the Union speech, who do they show in the cutaway on TV?" asks Manning. "He’s been coming up with a wealth of proposals, one after another, that you could easily make a case for and carry."

And despite the Republican congressional takeover, the nineties were relatively good to Kennedy’s agenda. "It’s really helped Ted that he finally has a Democratic president he can connect with, who honors him and sucks up to him," notes Manning. "It’s the first time since his brother where he can go over to the White House and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’"

With the possible exception of some dark moments in 1994, few ever doubted Kennedy was an effective senator. But of all of the changes he’s gone through, none leaves him better positioned to win a seventh term than the emerging public perception of him as a good man as well.   

Veteran reporter Walter Isaacson, who covered Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign for Time magazine, told Kennedy biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz that Ted "ate alone, spent a lot of time alone, wasn’t easy to approach. When he did attempt to be gregarious, there was a sort of glaze over his eyes that made the heartiness hollow." But that sad, distant loser has now, at least in Massachusetts, become as close to a revered figure as political cynicism and his own checkered past will allow. His rousing debate and stump performances down the stretch of 1994 Senate campaign were, friends say, signs of a man who had finally found himself.  

"He beat Romney because he finally felt free to be who he is, not what others might have wanted him to be," says Meade. "In many ways, he didn’t stop campaigning; he decided he liked it, and voters liked him."   

Kennedy’s public appearances in Massachusetts, once rare and stilted, are now more frequent and relaxed, and include previously unheard-of banter with onlookers. (After fielding skeptical questions at an early 1999 press conference, Ted asked one reporter: "Jesus, are you sure you want to kill me off so early?") And the anecdotal evidence of Kennedy’s goodheartedness keeps on piling up. He was the first person to try to visit conservative radio talk-show host David Brudnoy, a longtime Kennedy critic, at the hospital after word of Brudnoy’s HIV diagnosis became public. At school events involving his wife’s kids from an earlier marriage, Kennedy is reportedly the first to arrive and the last to leave. And the mother of a classmate of his stepson Curran was amazed to see Kennedy last July, within days of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., pulling up to the curb at National Airport to pick up Curran and his friends as they returned from summer baseball camp. "He knew all his stepson’s friends’ names," she recalls.   

And even if those images of his humanity are seen by only a few, everyone has had a front-row seat to watch Ted Kennedy expressing his spirituality at high-profile funerals throughout the nineties. "She sustained us in the saddest times by her faith in God, which was the greatest gift she gave us," he said at Rose’s 1995 North End funeral service. (Before giving his eulogy, he was seen on camera taking Communion, which led to the revelation that he had sought and had been granted an annulment of his first marriage.) His eulogy for JFK Jr. was not broadcast, but the sight of a visibly crushed Ted taking charge of the family and the funeral impressed even Manning, his former political adversary. "Ted was a silent sufferer that week," he says. "Part of being a very good Catholic is being a silent sufferer."  

And when the six Worcester firefighters killed in a warehouse fire last December were eulogized at a televised memorial service, Kennedy’s eloquent remembrance of his own losses was suitable for framing in any religious Massachusetts household, right alongside the faded photographs of his martyred brothers. "I wish that loved ones did not have to die too young," he said. "I wish that tragedy never haunted a single soul. But I know that sometimes life breaks your heart."  

If Ted Kennedy’s relationship with the people of Massachusetts proves stronger than ever on Election Day 2000, consider it the successful completion of a long, circuitous journey to redemption that so many in this hard-drinking, hardscrabble state, Catholic and otherwise, can relate to. As even Michael Sullivan puts it, a bit grudgingly but not without admiration: "He may have overcome some of those personal failures."

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