Life of the Party

It's the view from the back of the White House — looking down from the Truman Balcony, across the sloping lawn toward the Mall — that sticks in Ted Kennedy's mind. He's lived 43 years, more than half his life, since first kicking back there in a rocker with Jack, taking dinner on the balcony, the older brother on a break from running the country. Just Jack and Teddy, with the horseplay and the needling back and forth.

“You'd have the dinner prepared for just the two of us,” Kennedy remembers. “They'd put it in this heater off the small dining room, and you'd go out on the Truman porch, and you'd eat looking out at the monument and the sweep of the lawn.” For that idyll of a thousand days, with Jack in the White House and Bobby heading the Justice Department as attorney general, Ted had the run of the joint. “Not a day goes by that I don't think of my brothers,” he says.

Now, at 72, Massachusetts' senior senator wants back on the Truman porch. And his best shot, maybe his last shot, at reclaiming a seat in that rocking chair is his senatorial bench mate — another JFK: John Forbes Kerry.

When he reached out during the winter and yanked the sagging Kerry campaign by the collar, Kennedy, more than anyone else, revived a drowning candidacy. With his brotherly bear hug, his shouted appeals to fellow liberals, his decision to dispatch his chief of staff, his press secretary, his former speechwriter, and a bunch of other roustabouts culled from four decades of political wars, the senior senator managed to turn around the junior's primary prospects from likely defeat to decisive victory.

Kerry is Teddy's ticket back to Harry Truman's balcony and to the same kind of congressional clout you can have with a relative in the Oval Office. More than anything else, this explains why Kennedy has embraced Kerry's cause as his own and thrown into the fray everything he has to help. Never has any member of the Kennedy clan tried harder to elect anyone president who was not of the blood. In the process, the gaunt and nuanced Kerry — nearly 11 years Kennedy's junior, more cerebral in private and more shy in public — became the surrogate kid brother Ted never had.

What does Kennedy really think of Kerry? He's been outspoken about his colleague's virtues and confines his criticisms to private encouragements. In the matter of divining motives lies the real art of politics. Judging actions, not motives, is the safer course. But if Kerry beats George W. Bush — whose family dynasty has now surpassed Kennedy's — Kennedy will have the last laugh in a presidential process that has dominated his life for half a century.

President Richard Nixon crowed 35 years ago to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, shortly after Chappaquiddick: “It marks the end of Teddy.” Not quite.

Edward Moore Kennedy's personal saga, of course, is a Wagnerian epic, a technicolor script of Sturm und Drang. When the people around you begin talking to you about running for president an hour after your second brother is fatally shot, you are under a sort of pressure that does not fall on most politicians. A dozen years later, in 1980, Kennedy found out — and maybe suspected long before his ill-fated challenge to Jimmy Carter — that he'd never be president.

In the South and West, where conservatives reign, Kennedy's name and reputation are anathemas. He is the Democrat most often cited in GOP fundraising pitches. Not Bill or Hillary, not Kerry or Tom Daschle or Nancy Pelosi, but Kennedy. He is the favorite target of conservatives generally, the Wall Street Journal particularly, and the Murdoch media empire totally. Scripps Howard columnist Jay Ambrose wrote this spring that Kennedy had “skedaddled from the scene of a drowning” and, hence, is unfit to criticize President Bush on Iraq or anything else. “Is it fair to bring up Chappaquiddick?” Ambrose asked of the 1969 incident near Martha's Vineyard in which Kennedy's female companion drowned. “Only for this reason: to search out the moral authority of this mouthy man.”

For his part, criticism was not Kennedy's first inclination with the second President Bush. Fond of George Bush the First, he was willing to give the Second ample leeway at the outset. “I still consider [George W. Bush] a friend,” Kennedy says. He was charmed by First Lady Laura Bush. “I was thrown off a little by her. She's a teacher, a librarian.” Her feel for children and education Kennedy found genuine and deep. But he lost confidence in the White House over the lack of funding for the No Child Left Behind Act and Medicare drug benefits for seniors, and over Iraq.

Kennedy calls the Iraq war “one of the great disasters of American history” and “Bush's Vietnam.” In a long life with many regrets to mull over, Kennedy says one of his piercing self-reproaches is that he didn't do more early on to shut down the Vietnam War his brother started.

Most politicians believe Kerry benefits mightily from Kennedy's patronage. “He clears a lot of the forest on the left-hand side of the road so the presidential candidate can drive anywhere he likes,” says David Burke, a one-time Kennedy chief of staff and later president of CBS News.

Both in Washington and Boston, Kennedy's staff gets the highest ratings among knowledgeable observers and constituents. One longtime Kennedy adviser is Robert Shrum, a speechwriter and political consultant whose speeches are rated by rivals much more highly than his political advice (“The Guy Behind the Guy,” page 96). In April, the Kerry campaign bumped advertising consultant Jim Margolis down the campaign hierarchy in favor of Shrum in a dispute apparently decided by Kerry's reluctance to come down against a top Kennedy ally.

Kennedy's critics cling to the image of a bloated playboy. The head of the Massachusetts National Guard publicly apologized for circulating an e-mail spoofing the Democrats' convention, with gays cavorting, Kerry tossing away medals, and Kennedy popping up repeatedly to propose a toast. The caricature is by now, as they say, embedded. But he's got to live with what he's got to live with.

“I've made mistakes,” Kennedy says. “Certainly there are things I'm not proud of. It's sort of the challenge of life: to meet your own high standards and the expectations of the public.”

Most of us know the public version of Kennedy's tangled tale, and no wonder. More than 20 books dwell on his life. The Kennedy Library has more than 1,350 books with Kennedys in the title or as a major subject, and it's missed some.

The real Ted Kennedy is a man who says he would have been an opera singer if he hadn't gone into the family business. Kennedy's mother studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and he grew up singing at her piano. He's big on Irish tunes and love songs — “On the Street Where You Live,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “My Wild Irish Rose.” He likes nothing better than to hire a pianist and “spend the whole evening with musicians and everyone singing,” says former aide Nick Littlefield. At a big Washington 80th-birthday bash for the late columnist Mary McGrory, Kennedy uncorked a few Irish favorites in his big-hall baritone, to be succeeded at the mike by columnist Russell Baker, who brought down the house with an aside about how tough it is “to follow the Irish Pavarotti.”

Kennedy proposed to his wife, Vicki, to the strains of La Bohème. Puccini's tale of Parisian student life culminates in the consumptive Mimi's death after the aria “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” and her lover Rodolfo's paroxysm of grief. Love interrupted? Death premature? Survivor's guilt, framed by luscious music?

By most accounts it is Kennedy's step back into matrimony in 1992 that has made a huge difference in his personal life, his equanimity, his health, and his happiness. Victoria Reggie Kennedy travels nonstop with him, smoothing the ups and downs and softening his public appearances. She has slipped seamlessly into his public as well as private life with the family genes of her own tribe's involvement in Louisiana politics. He credits her with scolding 40 pounds off his lumbering frame.

The surviving Kennedy son is the patriarch now. There are more than 100 Kennedy relatives of one kind or another. “He's the one who writes the birthday notes, the thank-you notes,” says longtime supporter Heather Campion, head of corporate affairs at Citizens Bank.

He's been a lifelong sailor, and when he sails around Cape Cod to pick up Eddie Martin, who worked for him off and on over four decades, “all you do is sit there and watch Kennedy sail,” Martin says. “He holds on to the tiller.” With the same iron grip he employs to steer the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

More than any Democrat extant, Kennedy seems to know how to get things done. He encouraged Mayor Tom Menino, proprietor of the state's most muscular political machine, to mobilize in Kerry's cause. Kennedy summoned all the lesser satraps, dukes, and barons to get with the Kerry program. Of the parade of Catholic prelates who have threatened to withhold Communion from fellow Catholic Kerry, Kennedy notes dryly, “This pope gave Communion to General Pinochet” — the murderous Chilean dictator. That's an older brother protecting a younger brother even against threatening clerics.

Kerry has parted company with Kennedy at times. But much of the Kennedy agenda would become the Kerry agenda: the Holy Grail of health insurance for all, a higher minimum wage for the lower end and higher taxes for the top, a fresh flood of tax money for public schools, a cutback in missile spending, and a sweeping reversal of the Bush rollback of environmental safeguards.

Martin F. Nolan, longtime editorial page editor at the Boston Globe, has been chronicling Kennedy's career since it began. “What he had then and still has is diligence and determination, political qualities that surpass charisma and IQ,” Nolan says. “The guy just outworks everybody, wears them down, all to the benefit of the Commonwealth, the nation, and even his critics. He has all the tact and toughness of the youngest runt in a large Irish litter.”

The callow lightweight who landed a Senate seat in 1962 as the handoff of a family perk is now, after 42 years on the job, the fourth longest-serving senator in history. “In many ways,” says Campion, “he's the bedrock of our party.”

Says Jack Connors, chairman of Partners HealthCare, whose hospitals benefit mightily from Kennedy's grant grabbing: “People see him as a caricature, and they really don't understand that this guy has become a true lion in winter, probably the most effective senator in U.S. history.” Harvard president Larry Summers, a former U.S. treasury secretary, calls Kennedy's record “something we'll have to step back to admire almost with awe.”

Alone among national politicians, Kennedy does not have to mute his voice or trim his sails to fit the prevailing winds. No governor or congressman, save perhaps Senator John McCain, commands the media attention Kennedy does. A good time to announce his retirement and go out on top? No way. Kennedy says he'll seek re-election in 2006. He'll only go out, in the late Joe Moakley's quaint phrase, “toes up.”

“Why should he quit now?” asks Jack Nelson, longtime Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. “He owns the Senate on a lot of issues. He's never been more powerful. And he obviously enjoys it.”

To Ed Fouhy, a veteran network news executive, the Kennedy he sees now has matured and ripened. “What struck me about him was how much joy he seems to have in him now. That wasn't always the case,” Fouhy says after having watched Kennedy campaign for Kerry. “I suspect he has finally come out from under that great black cloud that goes with being a Kennedy. Maybe he said, ‘The hell with it, I'm just going to do the best I can, forget what other people think and drop all that other baggage I've been carrying.'”

Kennedy has walked through the White House gates hundreds of times since 1963, invited by all eight presidents who followed his brother. But he was a figure of suspicion and fear to Democrats Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, a volcanic partisan to be kept at arm's length by Republicans Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bushes I and II. Only Clinton let him wander around upstairs with anything like the jocularity and bon homie of the days before Dallas.

On the first St. Patrick's Day Clinton was in office, he threw a huge party that featured many of the Boston Irish who played roles in his election. That night, Kennedy held forth in a capacious sitting room throbbing with a riotous red wall covering, telling his half-dozen listeners about how he and Jack and Bobby would sprawl in this room with the over-the-top decorations and just hang out.

When he returns to the old executive mansion nowadays, he mostly stays downstairs. Except for the Clinton interregnum, it's always been business: negotiations, state dinners, bill signings. Now he's on the verge of having one of his own back upstairs in the living quarters, over the store at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But Kerry's not the only local politician who has benefited from Kennedy's considerable political bulk. Menino spent four years pursuing this month's Democratic National Convention. He got it down to the two-yard line, then called for Kennedy to push the ball over the goal line. Kennedy dialed up Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman, with this message: Tell me if Boston has a real chance to snag this, or is it a bag job for New York?

Kennedy was assured it wasn't in the satchel for New York, that Boston was alive, but the key issue was money and the $50-odd million needed from Massachusetts Democrats. Kennedy joined Menino working the phones, collaring wealthy donors, encouraging wary business types, smoothing out the wrinkles in the city's pitch. Save for his buddy Menino, no one did more to land the city's first convention. Whether Kennedy is also the kingmaker, we won't know until November. But along with Menino, he is co-maker of the throne.

So when Kennedy steps up to the microphone for his big speech in his hometown, what will run through his mind as he waves this way and that, waiting for the gales of applause to recede? The anchors will announce his arrival with portentous asides; everyone watching will recognize the big red face, the white hair, the big-hall boomer of a voice. You don't want to follow Ted Kennedy to the podium at the FleetCenter this month.