Ted Kennedy’s Living History
In the lead-up to the 1984 election, Kennedy considered another run for president, but abandoned the idea when his children said they feared for his safety. After his divorce from Joan in 1982, the unseemly details of Kennedy’s second bachelorhood provided regular fodder for the tabloids, one of which photographed him having sex on a boat in Europe. But the most damning revelations about Kennedy’s behavior came from a 1990 GQ article titled “Ted Kennedy on the Rocks.” In the piece, Kennedy and his friend Senator Chris Dodd were portrayed as hard-drinking party boys who, at the end of one particular night, reportedly tossed a waitress at Washington’s La Brasserie restaurant onto their dining table and groped her.
John Aycoth, Washington lobbyist: I saw Dodd and Kennedy together many times in the late ’80s. They were like a tag team, I think.
Woodlief: You’ve heard about the great Kennedy-Dodd sandwich, right? This was standard gossip in all the papers down in Washington at the time. They got the [La Brasserie] waitress between them and were, you know, maneuvering around with her as she was trying to wriggle free.
Raymond Campet, former co-owner of La Brasserie: The restaurant business is almost like the monkey business: You don’t see anything, you don’t hear anything, and you definitely don’t talk about anything. There were times he was maybe indulging a little too much. What are you supposed to do?
Aycoth: The James Bond film The Living Daylights came out in 1987. I was representing Aston Martin. I had a car brought in for the DC premiere. It’s parked in front of the hotel with a spotlight on it. I was downstairs when a dealer came up to me and said, “Ted Kennedy and his son are in your car. They’re looking for you.” He and Teddy Jr. were sitting in it, looking for the keys. Clearly they had been drinking, and I wasn’t going to give up this $189,000 Aston Martin. He got very upset and his son started yelling at me a little bit. Two months later, I found out that the senator had contacted the company to get me fired. I thought that was pretty vicious.
Richard Rampell, Palm Beach neighbor: A lot of women came up to him. They would be touching him and smiling at him a lot, a very indirect way of hitting on him.
Aycoth: I was at Club Desiree one night, and when I came back from the bathroom the girl I was with was gone. She came over and said, “They sent champagne over while you were gone, and then [Kennedy] wanted to meet me.”
Tuck: We were in a Jeep one day in Aspen, and Ted was driving and we almost had a head-on collision. He jokingly said to me that I should know better than to get in a goddamned Jeep with a Kennedy.
Rampell: I was supposed to play tennis with Ted on the afternoon of Easter Sunday. He called me up and said his back was bothering him, but would I like to come over for a drink that night? So I went over there with my son, who was very young at the time, and Ted was very clearly intoxicated. I couldn’t really [understand] what he was talking about. I was a little concerned because I didn’t think it was a good thing for my son to see.
Susman: Sure, I saw the photographs of him on some boat with his pants down, and the story of him and Dodd and their girlfriends at the Monocle [restaurant]. The fact is, at 6:30 in the morning he was up, and he had done his homework. He kept his personal life compartmentalized.
Rampell: [One Saturday night] we did a lot of drinking, a real lot of drinking. Seven o’clock the next morning, he starts banging on my door. If it was anybody else I would have said, “I’m sleeping. Get lost.” He wanted to get a set of tennis in before he had to take his mother to Mass.
Gwirtzman: If the 1980s was a “lost decade,” he certainly got a lot of things done in the Senate. That was when he kept pushing the Equal Rights Amendment, and when he changed the Immigration Act. He put through a raft of healthcare legislation on various diseases, including AIDS, and he tried to get some sort of gun control. Each one of those takes a lot of work. So you just have to conclude that he was able to do that and have some drinks at the same time.
Kennedy’s most notorious political moment of the decade was his 1987 attack on Judge Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee. Kennedy’s speech denouncing Bork showed the senator at his most fiery, defending the progressive values with which he had become synonymous. “Robert Bork’s America,” the speech began, “is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, [and] rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids….”
Bob Dole, former U.S. senator: We were pretty openly critical of Kennedy and others who were dumping on this well-qualified judge. I’d be interested to see what Bork had to say.
Robert Bork, Supreme Court nominee: Every one of the lines from that speech—every one—was a lie. People told me that it was so obviously over the top that it would help me rather than hurt me. They were wrong.
Laurence Tribe, Harvard Law professor and Kennedy adviser: [The way he] made Bork seem like something of an ogre always made a number of people, including me, sort of uncomfortable. But putting it in terms that ordinary people could understand was an important part of organizing opposition to the nomination.
Bork: When you’re nominated for something, you make the rounds to various senators’ offices. I wanted to see Kennedy, and it was odd because he dropped his head and didn’t seem to want to look at me. He said, “Nothing personal.” Yeah, it was just business. Quite aside from my episode, I never had the slightest admiration for the Kennedys or for their behavior, publicly and privately.
In April 1991, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch pleaded with Kennedy to stop drinking. Kennedy took his friend’s words to heart. He curtailed his drinking and began seeing Victoria Reggie, the Louisiana-born daughter of close friends. They were married in 1992.
Clymer: She wasn’t really looking to find a new romance—she had two young children to raise. I think he pretty much despaired of ever finding another happy marriage. But they clicked. When you’d see them together, they gave off sparks.
Peter Meade, head of the Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate: Her children became his children. A friend of mine told me his kids were in the same class as one of Vicki’s children. He said, “Honestly, I think Senator Kennedy has been to more parent nights than I have.”
Clymer: Ted’s personal life had been lonely and restless, and it became happy and fulfilled.
Caplin: On his 75th birthday, Vicki was acting as mistress of ceremonies. He started trying to take control and she said, “Ted, I’m in charge here!” She really handled him beautifully.
Hagan: She had him on a diet; he told me he felt like a rabbit because he was eating so much lettuce. He gets on the phone with her: “Vicki, do you think it would be good, maybe, to get a few croutons on the salad? Could I have a few croutons?” She says okay, so the two of us go down into this pantry and he gets the whole box of croutons. We come upstairs and he’s eating them right out of the box. I say, “I don’t think that was Vicki’s intention.” “I know, Tim, but I gotta bite on something that I can chew. That lettuce was driving me crazy.”
Grossman: Ted and Vicki had my wife, Barbara, and me to dinner at Hyannisport. Vicki had made fish with a sauce. It was wonderful. As we finished, Ted jumps up and comes around with the serving platter. He said, “Isn’t this sauce wonderful?” He had this boyish enthusiasm. It was as if he were saying, “Isn’t Vicki an amazing person? Aren’t I lucky to have her?” It was a moment of personal adulation for a woman who, in many ways, saved his life.
Dowd: When we used to stop at a family’s house for dinner on the campaign trail, he kind of envied them. No matter how famous you are, it’s tough when you’re alone. But now he’d sit down and have dinner with Vicki and her children. He had a home again.
His personal life settled, Kennedy was free to devote his energy to fulfilling his potential as a lawmaker.
Frank: He was kind of a walking repudiation of the notion that you had to be either pragmatic or idealistic—he was both. It is precisely because he was so idealistic that he thought he had to be pragmatic about getting those ideals adopted.
Lowell Weicker, former U.S. senator and Connecticut governor: I credit the senator almost entirely with the fall of apartheid in South Africa. At the time, no one in the United States knew what apartheid was. Ted brought various leaders of the African National Congress to his office. Sanctions passed and we overrode Reagan’s veto. I have no doubt that it was because of Kennedy’s efforts that it took months rather than decades for that system to disintegrate.
John Cullinane, family friend: When Nelson Mandela got out of prison and was coming to the United States for the first time, the first place that he stopped was the Kennedy Library. We had a big function for him. I emceed the thing, and you look out in the audience and there’s Paul Simon and Harry Belafonte and everyone else you could imagine. Our table consisted of my wife and I, Stevie Wonder, Mrs. Mandela, Ted, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Onassis, Joe Kennedy, and Eunice Shriver. That was just one table. Even Jesse Jackson couldn’t get in.
Keith Lockhart, Boston Pops conductor: He loved to sing. After dinner in Hyannisport we would retire to the living room, where he had all these books of Broadway songs. I was there once with a rather conservative Republican senator and his wife. They must have thought, Well, this is what those Massachusetts Democrats do—they sing Lerner and Loewe around the piano.
Johnston: He always used to say if he hadn’t gone into politics he might have gone into musical theater.
Father Gerry Creedon, family friend: He would have been a great actor. He did the inflections of the British accent beautifully. He used to imitate Prince Charles turning to him: “Senator from Massachusetts, cawn I call you Teh-tay?”
Deval Patrick, Massachusetts governor: We had invited Ted and Vicki to dinner after a Pops concert at Tanglewood. [Before the dinner], he would just keep calling and saying, “I thought about including this person.” Vicki was mortified. She’d get on the phone and say, “I can’t believe he’s doing this.” That night, we think everybody who had been invited is there—Keith Lockhart and his fiancée, [Broadway stars] Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, who had played the concert—and then in comes this guy with a keyboard.
Bob Winter, Boston Pops pianist: I knocked on the door and Mrs. Patrick answered. I don’t think she was expecting me. When Ted Kennedy saw me, he said, “Oh, there’s somebody else for dinner—make a place for him.” It was the governor’s house, but evidently Teddy was taking charge of the party. After dinner, he wanted to sing. He especially wanted to sing “You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You)” to his wife. Then he prevailed on everyone to sing to their significant others. The governor sang “Embraceable You.”
Patrick: Of course, we’d had a prodigious amount of wine by the time the singing began, so it wasn’t quite as intimidating as it might otherwise have been.
Cleary: He used to have a small party down at his house on the Cape the Friday after Thanksgiving. He would do that every year.
Joan Kennedy, Kennedy’s former wife: I spent 50 Thanksgiving dinners with him over the years. That was a special time for the Kennedys. All of them would come back up to Hyannisport. It was always kind of cold, but we would go out sailing and then we’d all have a big dinner—myself, my children, my grandchildren, and, in later years, with Caroline Kennedy and her entire family. After dinner, we would go into the living room and I would play the piano. Very often Ted wanted to sing some Christmas carols to get us in the mood for the next holiday.
Hagan: We used to tell him the songs were better when somebody else was singing them. But it was the expression of inclusion for him: that we’re all in this together and we do the best we can.
Kennedy handily won his reelection bids for more than three decades. But in 1994, when he was 62, he came up against a formidable opponent: Mitt Romney. The son of former Michigan Governor George Romney, he had made his fortune running a private equity company in Boston, and was promising to usher in an era of fiscal responsibility and job growth.
Dan Winslow, former Romney legal counsel: Kennedy was very rusty when the campaign began, which surprised us, because his reputation had obviously preceded him.
Dukakis: People were saying, “He’s okay, but he’s over the hill.”
Winslow: Throughout the summer of 1994, Romney actually pulled ahead of Kennedy by about five points. Nobody had ever done that before. I think that got not just the Kennedys’ attention, but also the attention of the Democrats nationally, who recognized that you can’t have Ted Kennedy being beaten in Massachusetts.
Johnston: Right around this time I was talking to Eddy Martin, who was a great aide to the senator, and he said, “We’d better get working on this. This whole thing’s going down the drain.”
Nolan: For most of his career, he really enjoyed campaigning. I think he got away from it there for a while, and the race against Mitt Romney woke him up.
Scott Ferson, spokesman: We were driving back to Boston from an event when he spotted a Kennedy campaign sticker on a car up ahead. He said, “Catch up to that car.” The driver asked why. He said, “I paid a lot of money for those stickers. Catch up to that car!” Kennedy rolled down the window and got out of it practically to his waist and started waving his arms wildly at this person, who I think was a little shocked to all of a sudden see Ted Kennedy hanging out the window on I-93.
Burke: He took great comfort in the fact that we weren’t screwing around anymore. We’re gonna run for office, and we’re gonna do it the old-fashioned way.
Dukakis: They discovered that Romney had worked for an outfit that took over companies, basically took the unions out and slashed wages. Vicki strongly urged that that be used. It was, and it was devastating to Romney.
Winslow: We were meeting with the staff to go over the final preparations for the debate. Someone on Kennedy’s staff said, “Look, the senator’s got a bad back. Do you mind if we have podiums on the stage because sometimes he has to lean against it?” The Romney staff immediately agreed. The biggest physical distinction between Kennedy and Romney was that Romney was trim and fit, and Kennedy was not. We showed up for the debate that night to see the two widest podiums I’d ever seen. They were the width of refrigerators, and completely hid both men except for their upper bodies. That was a brilliant move.
Ferson: On the night of the debate, police motorcycles escorted Mitt Romney’s car as close to Faneuil Hall as possible. He got out, the cameras popped, and he and his wife walked fairly quickly in. A couple of minutes later, the senator’s Suburban parked in the same place. He opened the door, got up on his seat, and started banging on the roof of the car with his fists. People were going crazy. I turned to a reporter and said, “Who do you think is prepared for this debate?”
Burke: He was on. He came to remember that the experience that he has had in life, the experience Romney didn’t have, was an enormous source of strength, and he started using it.
Ferson: Romney was charging that a piece of property the Kennedy family foundation owned in Washington had a public tenant, that this was a special deal. When he raised it at the debate, the senator said, “The Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price.”
Woodlief: That was a game-changing moment.
Burke: I think he sensed that in life you get tests. The Romney thing was a test, and he had overcome it.
Johnston: It took him a long time to come to the point where he became an iconic figure. It’s only since he beat Romney that he did.