Ted Kennedy’s Living History

Ted Kennedy, remembered.

When Kennedy returned to Washington, his reputation was tarnished. “He was an upcoming young guy, kind of glitzy, and his brothers had a lot of star power,” says former staffer Thomas Susman. “In the Senate that counted for something, and after Chappaquiddick it didn’t count for something.” In the years that followed, he worked to reestablish his credentials as a serious legislator and an influential voice for progressive causes.

Abrams: He held 16 major hearings on Vietnam out of his subcommittee, because the Committee on Foreign Relations wasn’t holding them.

Burke: In those days, typical trips to Vietnam were arranged by the Pentagon. They’d show you what they wanted to show you. But we sent advance people to scout out various hospitals for civilian casualties, especially to look at the effect of napalm on children. The war certainly wasn’t winning the hearts and minds. It was just killing people, and it was getting worse and worse.

Dr. Lawrence Horowitz, medical adviser and former chief of staff: Kennedy didn’t believe that statistics alone were enough, because behind every statistic is a real live human being, and he wanted people to feel that.

Burke: When we arrived in Vietnam we got the usual greeting from the military. And we would just tell them, “No, here’s where we want to go.” That certainly made the wires back to Washington hum a little.

In 1971, some 2,000 Vietnam vets camped on the National Mall to protest the war.

Kerry:I’m sure we were an odd sight: thousands of veterans, some with long hair and beards, some wearing insignias of America’s finest fighting units, some singing protest songs, some waving the American flag. The Nixon White House was talking about having us all arrested, and we were under surveillance. We were having debates and discussions about whether we should stay on the Mall and risk arrest, or whether we should go somewhere else. About that time, Ted showed up. He spent hours just listening to us and showing his complete solidarity. Soon, other senators followed him, and the way was cleared for us to testify before the Senate, to tell the country what was happening in Vietnam. But it was Ted who broke the ice and made it clear that we veterans had a right to speak. It was one of those moments that crystallized for me what public service was supposed to be. I’d seen politicians who claimed to be on our side but didn’t return our calls and didn’t want to risk coming to the Mall to hear from the very men they’d sent to war, and against that backdrop of frustration stood Ted Kennedy.

Southwick: He was always a champion for people who had no other voice.

Steve Grossman, former DNC chairman: Ted Kennedy had the capacity to understand that the experience of his people was the experience of all immigrants. First it was “No Irish need apply.” Then it was “No Jews need apply.” It was “No Puerto Ricans need apply.” For him, it was all about tearing down the barbed wire—that’s what he called it—the barbed wire of bigotry and racism and hatred.

Southwick: In 1978 Kennedy negotiated with the Vietnamese government to get a group of Vietnamese wives and children of American servicemen out of the country. The soldiers had come back to the United States, but the children and wives were left behind. About two dozen of them flew all the way from Ho Chi Minh City and eventually landed at Dulles. Apparently somebody hadn’t gotten the word to the customs officials, because they wouldn’t let them through. The servicemen were waiting on our side of this Plexiglas wall, and you could see their wives and children on the other side. I was trying to deal with the bureaucracy, but things were getting more and more tense. Finally, Kennedy just walked through the gate with this determined look on his face, took a little girl by the hand, and said, “Follow me.” The whole crowd went through.

 

Kennedy had long been talked about as a presidential contender, but Chappaquiddick scuttled any chance of a run in 1972 or 1976. When Jimmy Carter’s administration proved incapable of dealing with the myriad crises the country faced in the late 1970s, Kennedy decided he had to act, even if it meant taking on an incumbent president from his own party—and confronting the events surrounding Chappaquiddick.

Clymer: He did not like Jimmy Carter. He thought he was a bad president and a bad Democrat.

Nolan: I showed up at his office the day before he formally announced. He said, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, I read history just as much as you do—you know, it’s never been done. Maybe you’re different and maybe you’re smarter, and being a Kennedy’s a great thing, but being the president may be even better.” He just laughed and said, “Okay…because I asked.”

Horowitz: He was quite concerned about the impact on his family, in particular on the health of Joan. We convened a panel of physicians to review her medical problems and condition, because he would not consider running unless the doctors felt it would do her no harm.

Thomas O’Neill, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor: My father [longtime House Speaker Tip O’Neill] had asked him at a personal level not to run. He really believed Chappaquiddick would lodge in people’s minds and, had they forgotten it, they would have been reminded during the campaign. It would have been the destruction, politically, of Teddy.

Michael Goldman, Democratic strategist: It never reached a point where Chappaquiddick became an issue, because he was sliced so early by the [1979] Roger Mudd interview [on CBS].

Nolan: Roger and I had drinks at the Parker House. We were going through the questions he was going to ask. “You’re going to ask about Chappaquiddick, right?” and then, “Why are you running for president?” Anyone would ask that question.

Southwick: The interview was conducted several weeks before Kennedy actually announced his candidacy. At the time, all across the country, these “Draft Kennedy for President” groups had sprung up and were spending money. We were in the process of setting up the legal mechanisms that you have to have in place, but we hadn’t completed them.

Roger Mudd, former CBS News reporter: When the question “Why do you want to be president?” came up, there was a pause. His answer ran some 420 words and didn’t add up to anything. There wasn’t any substance at all. I figured he’s either never thought about it, or he thinks he doesn’t need an answer because he can merely ascend to the nomination.

Southwick: Right after the interview, he called me and said, “This is a disaster and here’s why: I knew if I said I want to be president, Roger would put it on the air that night.” We would have immediately become legally responsible for all these fundraising groups when we weren’t ready to be.

Mudd: Southwick said that I had blindsided Kennedy, because I had asked him the president question before he had officially announced his candidacy. That’s laughable. Anybody who wants to be president would know why well before they actually announced.

Clymer: Ted didn’t have a clear message even when he started campaigning. I don’t think he had any sense of how focused the media would be on everything he did.

Southwick: The press just went nuts. A reporter for NBC took it upon himself to go out to the senator’s house unannounced, walk in with a camera, stick a microphone in the face of 12-year-old Patrick, and say, “Are you concerned that your father might be killed the way your uncles were?” That was the only time I’d ever seen Kennedy angry. He called me into his office and said, “I just got off the phone with Patrick, and he’s in tears. Isn’t there any kind of limit?”

Horowitz: I went to the White House in the fall of 1979 and met with Carter’s staff. I outlined my personal concerns [for Kennedy’s safety]. To Jimmy Carter’s credit, he said, “Give him Secret Service protection immediately.”

Gwirtzman: Some guy from the Justice Department who specializes in bulletproof vests came out and said, “This is what you’re gonna have to wear.” Kennedy had a medical unit travel with him. There were two doctors and a nurse who were trained in treating trauma—in other words, gunshot wounds.

Doherty: The campaign was like being in a washing machine with no water. It was just brutal.

Wayne Woodlief, Boston Herald political columnist: They made a whole lot of mistakes. When Kennedy came onto the campaign plane, somebody held up a sign that said, “You are now entering the bozo zone.”

Dowd: Late in the campaign, I was in Concord, New Hampshire, with his Washington staff. They said, “Why don’t you get out now? You don’t want to embarrass yourself.” His sister Eunice Shriver said, “Senator, you be a man. Stay in there.”

Timothy Hagan, former Ohio Democratic Party official: After Carter got the nomination, Tom Brokaw and all those people grabbed me on the floor of the convention. They’re saying, “The Democratic Party was divided.” And I said, “Reagan will unite us.” I went over to Teddy’s party later that night, and as soon as I walk into the room he says, “Here comes Mr. Uniter. Isn’t he wonderful?” I said, “Kennedy, what did you expect me to do?” He had to be funny. He could never say, “No. That was the right thing to do.”

Thomas Susman, aide: I was down at the Carter library, going on a tour with [Supreme Court justice and former Kennedy aide] Steve Breyer and his wife. In the 1980 campaign section there was not a single mention of Kennedy. Carter’s grandson was on this tour, and he said, “Yeah, some of the family members still hold Kennedy responsible for Carter’s losing that race.”

Horowitz: The best thing Jimmy Carter did for the country was to preserve Kennedy for an additional 29 years of public service in the Senate, where he had far more impact than most presidents.

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