State of Grace

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.'”