The Making of the Remaking of Edward M. Kennedy


“He was a relic” just 19 months ago, remembers press secretary Bob Shrum. “A noble relic, or less than noble, depending on your viewpoint, but a relic nonetheless.” Today, the Gallup and Harris polls suggest Ted Kennedy is—among the Democrats—the perceived leader. And he has been able to attach his name to one of the most prominent political issues of the day: the nuclear-arms freeze. “The freeze is, from Kennedy’s point of view, a classic example of outfoxing the opposition,” says Tsongas. “It is the equivalent to the Roger Mudd interview on the other side for him. There’s an enormous constituency for it, and attaching his name to it was a tremendous coup.”  

The freeze issue came to Kennedy’s attention in a rather odd manner. Most Kennedy positions originate with others, through a manner senior legislative assistant Carey Parker describes as “climbing the spiral staircase.” One of Kennedy’s professional staff members—there are currently 30 or so, assigned variously to the Senate office, the committees on Health and on Labor and Human Resources, and (indirectly, and not on the Senate payroll) to the private Fund for a Democratic Majority—will bring an outline for a legislative initiative to Kennedy, or Parker, or administrative assistant Larry Horowitz, the de-facto chief of staff. The proposal would then be sent to experts in the field for critiques, go back to the staffer in charge for a rewrite, be approved by either the committee staff director or the senior aide, and eventually by the senator himself. When the Democrats held the Senate majority, prior to the 1980 elections, this process would lead to 10 or more major pieces of legislation a year per committee. These days, however, staffers are more concerned with fighting a holding action against the Republicans. “We can prevent the worst from happening, if we’re lucky and pick up a couple of moderate Republicans,” says Parker. “Take the Budget Reconciliation Bill. Reagan wanted a 100 percent cut, and Kennedy kept it at 50, or 75 percent. Not exactly a front-page story, but.…”   

Although the freeze would turn out to be page-one material, Kennedy found it by himself—as if it were an epiphany—on a frigid Berkshires ski trip late last December during the annual congressional recess. The Massachusetts trip was a combination media event and family outing. But Kennedy tried to do a bit of work, too, scheduling a handful of community meetings. One of these was in early January at Mount Wachusett Community College, in Gardner, the heart—Kennedy would later learn—of the grass-roots nuclear-freeze movement in the Northeast.   

“It was a Monday morning,” Kennedy recalled in July, “and I remember clearly that the heat was off. Everybody had coats on. There was a woman in a rose-colored hat, and she was holding a child. She said she hadn’t gone to work that day because she had a question to ask me.   

“It was a simple question—‘Why can’t we have a nuclear freeze?’—and she asked it quietly, in a thoughtful way. She knew enough about the subject to follow it up, too. But I guess it was the fact that she—that someone—had given up work for the day, that showed me how filled with concerns people were. The experience began to repeat itself at other meetings, the same tone, the same questions.”   

Returning to Hyannis Port, Kennedy was invited to a meeting of Cape Cod social workers in Craigville to discuss a freeze further. He was still inclined to think of the issue as faddish, the kind that might be embraced by the Brattle Street crowd in Cambridge until another seal hunt or hazardous-waste dump came along. “But Craigville is not Cambridge,” Kennedy explained. “And the logic I heard there seemed irrefutable. I made some notes, and when I came back to Washington, I held a big session with some arms-control people.”   

Kennedy’s arrival in Washington was also punctuated by his notorious (at least to his own staff) Irish temper. After ordering his staff to put together, on a day’s notice, a freeze meeting at his McLean, Virginia, home, Kennedy began badgering his foreign-policy advisor, Jan Kalicki—who had worked for both Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance at the State Department’s Arms Control Agency—for an information sheet on the freeze and its international and national defense implications. (Sheets on a variety of issues are sent home with Kennedy each night in a briefcase known as “the bag,” and there’s no small competition among staffers to get their materials into that bag.) Kalicki, a soft-spoken former Ivy League professor whose high forehead, glasses, and curly brown hair make him look like Henry Kissinger’s nephew, apparently didn’t react quickly enough. Kennedy, already angered that the freeze was not on his staff’s list of projects, walked into the reception area of his Senate office and began screaming at Kalicki, whose office is directly behind the receptionist’s desk, “You better get that fucking sheet to me in five minutes!” “Kennedy had been talking with Jan,” conceded another aide. “Without detracting from Jan, he just didn’t see its importance.” Kalicki eventually delivered the information, and the staff—whom Kennedy would collectively, and mockingly, refer to for weeks as “your geniuses”—regrouped.  

Meetings, on the phone or in person, were arranged with Alexander Haig, Dean Rusk, Paul Warnke, and others. While Horowitz, Parker, and Shrum nervously watched to see if another senator would beat them to the floor (Tsongas, for one, was already outlining a version when Kennedy called to invited the junior senator to add his name to his own), Kennedy questioned the experts. “I wanted to maintain the option of doing something else,” he recalled. “I wanted to test the arguments. It wasn’t a situation where the people asked me to support the freeze, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I was supportive of the direction from the beginning, but not of any specific proposal.”   

Kennedy heard nothing that said a freeze was impossible. “I discovered,” he said, “that the arms-control people couldn’t give me a good response to the question of ‘why not?'” A rough draft of the resolution was drawn up, and the office went to work.   

On March 10, Kennedy and Senator Mark Hatfield, of Oregon, a moderate Republican who had broken with the administration on social and economic issues in the past, introduced the Senate Joint Resolution 163 asking that the United States and the Soviet Union agree to a mutually verifiable freeze on the construction and deployment of nuclear weapons. The two countries, the brief text read, should decide how and when a moratorium on testing, production, and distribution of nuclear warheads could be set up, and “give special attention to destabilizing weapons whose deployment would make such a freeze more difficult to achieve.”   

Even though the resolution did not carry the weight of law, Kennedy had a difficult time finding a Republican cosponsor. A month earlier he had approached Senator Nancy Kassebaum, of Kansas, but was turned down. John Chafee, of Rhode Island, also declined, as did Charles Mathias, of Maryland. Hatfield, the fourth choice, had been a junior naval officer when Hiroshima was bombed. He visited the city a month after the attack, and, as he testified before Congress, he never forgot what he saw. Although his name did not carry the bipartisan impact of others, he came from the right party, and Kennedy was glad to have him.   

A month later, a book-length manuscript on the freeze was published by Bantam Books. Written by Parker and Shrum, it carried Kennedy’s and Hatfield’s by-lines. And on June 27, at the Democrats’ midterm convention in Philadelphia, Kennedy—closing that meeting—ended his well-received speech with a further call for the freeze, which he described, in his “agenda for the eighties,” as “the most important new idea of all.”   

Actually, the idea was not new, not even to the Kennedy staff. The 1980 Democratic Convention Report shows, as Minority Report Number 21, a call for a freeze quite similar to that of Kennedy’s. The report was written by Frank Askin, a New Jersey delegate committed to Kennedy. And supporting statements were given by Admiral Gene La Rocque, a retired naval officer and sometime Kennedy advisor, and John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist and Kennedy insider. Kennedy could have had the freeze then, but the MX missile and the MIRV warhead were the compelling issues of the day. The staff decided to stay away from the freeze. “It bubbled up before,” concedes Kennedy. “It just didn’t bubble up far enough.”   

What may ultimately be the most attractive aspect of the freeze as an issue is its simplicity. After the complexities of SALT, with its “dense-pacs” and various weapon categories and submarines-for-silos tradeoff, the freeze has a man-in-the-street appeal. “I can remember, when I was working for the NASA space program in Cambridge, a so-called peace march that had maybe 500,000, a million people converging on the city,” says Eddy Martin. “They were silent as they marched. And that struck me. I think we’ll see something similar when the colleges come back this fall.” But there is no underestimating the issue’s volatility. At a televised debate in early July between Kennedy and New Hampshire Senator Gordon Humphrey, a former airline pilot and staunch Reagan supporter, a near-brawl broke out between proponents and opponents of the freeze. As Helen Caldicott, the Newton-based pediatrician and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, attempted to address the audience before the Humphrey/Kennedy encounter, she was interrupted by a Russian émigré, who had already spoken. The Russian chased her off the stage, only to be chased off himself by the sponsoring station’s news director. Caldicott continued through a storm of catcalls, hisses, cheers, and applause, then retreated to a back room, muttering, “They’re all Nazis.” (Her teenaged daughter said she was convinced they’d be “murdered.”)   

Kennedy fared better than Caldicott, who in fact had once spent months trying to meet with the senator on the matter of a freeze. Showing off his new, modulated speaking style, Kennedy’s only real problem seemed to be his inability to look anywhere other than directly at the camera in front of him. On debater’s points, the evening was probably a draw. But the Kennedy supporters in the audience outnumbered Humphrey’s by a two-to-one margin. Score one for the Massachusetts advance men. “Anybody who still thinks he’s inarticulate,” crowed press secretary Shrum afterward, “is insane.” Kennedy himself was a bit more modest about the effect of the program, which had a television audience of a quarter of a million. “The freeze won’t be passed at the grass-roots level,” Kennedy said. “It will be passed in the Senate.”   

On August 6, the freeze wasn’t passed in the House. By a vote of 204 to 202, with 53 Democrats joining the Republicans (and 27 Republican representatives siding with the Democrats), an immediate and verifiable freeze of the two superpowers’ nuclear arms was rejected.   

The next day, with Hatfield and Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey (the sponsor of the resolution in the House), Kennedy told reporters that the close vote was a victory, and that the momentum building for the freeze reminded him of the problems Medicare first had gaining support in the sixties.   

He also noted an irony. The House vote had come on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.