The Making of the Remaking of Edward M. Kennedy


In the fall of 1980, during a lame-duck session of Congress after the Democrats had lost their Senate majority, Edward Kennedy decided to give up his seniority on the Judiciary Committee (he would, of course, be stripped of his chairmanship by the Republicans) and—in a move hotly debated among his own staff members—became a ranking minority member of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. The failure of Reagan’s economic policy was obviously hoped for but by no means guaranteed, but the switch was still shrewd. It made Kennedy the most visible Democratic senator on job-related issues, giving his supporters in organized labor a platform and spokesman who could attract the attention of the press and the public.   

He also attracted Kitty Higgins’s attention. Higgins had worked for Stuart Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter’s chief advisor on domestic policy, and had specialized in labor and education (which comes under the jurisdiction of the Senate Labor Committee). Higgins knew Kennedy didn’t have an experienced staffer in labor matters, and asked Eizenstat—who himself was admired by Kennedy—to inquire on her behalf. Kennedy, who has been making an effort to bring more women into his circle of advisors, hired her. “I didn’t appreciate what a good senator he is, how hard he works, until I got here,” said 34-year-old Higgins from her fifth-floor cubbyhole in the committee offices. “He’s identified as a liberal, an old-line liberal, yet he reaches more toward bipartisanship than almost anyone around here. You know, trying to work with conservatives like Jeremiah Denton [the former POW from Alabama] and John East is important with the Democrats in the minority.”   

One can return to the Philadelphia speech in late June to get a sense of exactly how important someone like Higgins is to Kennedy, and to his revamped image. In that address, Kennedy opened with an impassioned call for an Equal Rights Amendment. Yet during the 1980 primary, it was evident to most observers that few—if any—women were being given significant responsibility in the campaign. Now, on the Labor Committee, Higgins has been put in charge of what may become one of the highest-profile issues Kennedy will be associated with next year: a jobs-initiative program to replace the already severely depleted Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA).   

Higgins has been joined by a handful of other influential women. Elaine Shocas, the general counsel of the Fund for a Democratic Majority, the senator’s year-old, direct-mail fund-raising organization, began working for Kennedy as a staffer on the Judiciary Committee in 1978, and joined the fund last winter, after campaigning in both New Hampshire and Illinois. Carolyn Osolinik, a former trial lawyer in the Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department, is the legislative assistant responsible for environmental, judicial, and women’s issues. And Ranny Cooper arrives on the Senate staff in November after stints as former congressman Robert Drinan’s administrative aide and as director of the Women’s Campaign Fund. (There have been women working for Kennedy all along—Mary Frackleton, who runs the Boston office, for example—but they have had little say in shaping policy decisions. In fact, when it was announced in Washington that Eddy Martin was being sent to Boston last January, one staff aide recalled, “there was a general sigh of relief that we’d have him there supervising things.”) Together, the four women represent an effort on the part of Kennedy to change his men-only image, but the status quo remains: the inner circle of Kennedy advisors numbers three, and all are male.   

The grand old man of the inner circle is Carey Parker, the chief legislative aide. A 44-year old intellectual whose Rhodes Scholarship led to a doctorate in genetics, and who came to Kennedy in 1968 after working for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Parker was, throughout the seventies, Kennedy’s chief speechwriter. Other senators consider Parker the brightest member of the Kennedy staff, but lately he has been sharing the speech-writing duties with Robert Shrum, the second—and most recent—addition to the inner circle.   

Shrum, a rumpled, out-of-shape bachelor who turned 40 in July, had held a variety of speech-writing jobs—with New York City Mayor John Lindsay, with Ed Muskie, with George McGovern, and very briefly with Jimmy Carter—between journalistic assignments. One of the latter, a piece coauthored with pollster Pat Caddell for Rolling Stone, had predicted, in 1973, the rise of a politician like Carter. In October 1979, shortly before Kennedy made up his mind to announce his candidacy for the presidency, Shrum got a call from author Dick Goodwin, asking him—if Kennedy were to run—would Shrum be interested in going to work. Shrum said sure, and a few days later, Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law and national campaign manager, confirmed the offer. Shrum came aboard. By the end of the campaign, Shrum was spending as much time with Kennedy as anyone. “I think that Bob filled a void in Ted’s life,” one aide said. “Ted’s family life in Washington had fallen apart, and Bob was single, and excellent company. He was the kind of guy it was easy to relax around.” Shrum calls this perception “amateur psychologizing,” though he does not dispute his insider status.   

The third member of the circle is Larry Horowitz, a 37-year-old physician who joined the Senate Health Committee that Kennedy chaired eight years ago, and quickly became its staff director. Horowitz is a curly-haired, bespectacled, cigar-smoking internist who has not seen a patient on a practicing basis since 1977. Horowitz’s Health Committee was remarkably productive, not only in keeping Kennedys’ health-insurance proposals in the public eye, but also in filing legislation on issues ranging from preventive medicine to biomedical research. In the fall of 1980, when Kennedy’s former administrative aide Richard Burke appeared to suffer some kind of nervous breakdown (portraying himself as the target of violent threats and attacks, which the FBI later concluded he had staged himself), Horowitz was brought over to the Senate office to fill the post on an interim basis. The timing was opportune, for the Health Committee—in one of Washington’s periodic reorganizations—was being absorbed into the Labor Committee. Horowitz proved as adept in the Senate office as he had on the committee, and, in August, was officially designated first among his equals: Shrum announced that Horowitz would fulfill the role of ex-officio national campaign manager, even though a national campaign had yet to be unveiled.    

Shrum’s announcement was still another acknowledgement that Kennedy was determined to handle things differently this time around. Not only were women being given high-visibility jobs, not only was a line of authority being created to make political decisions, not only were issues being claimed, but a full-time political aide—South Carolinian Bill Carrick—had been hired to meet with constituencies ranging from the teachers’ union to Puerto Rican Democratic Party regulars concerned with the 1984 delegate-selection process.   

The attitude toward money has changed as well. The 1980 campaign ran up a $2.4 million debt, and that has been virtually erased under the fund-raising efforts of Leonard Conway, Kennedy’s finance director, who shares a small cubicle with Bill Carrick. The Senate campaign had raised, by midsummer, about a million dollars. And the Fund for a Democratic Majority had broken the million-dollar mark the previous spring.   

The fund was registered with the Federal Election Commission in February 1981. Operating out of a small third-floor office a couple of blocks from the Russell Senate Office Building, the fund sent out its first direct-mailing a month later, a six-page letter signed by Kennedy, outlining the threat of the New Right to the Democratic Party. The letter asked for small contributions—$20 or so—to pay for more mailings. Eighteen months later, the fund—into its ninth mailing—had 42,000 contributors, and had raised $1.3 million.   

In the world of direct mail—an environment that had been the near-exclusive province of the conservatives since the mid-seventies—those figures are considered a success, particularly in light of the fund’s relatively modest operating expense of approximately $1 million. But although one of the fund’s stated goals is to distribute money to sympathetic candidates, it has handed out, to date, only about $75,000 to approximately 60 candidates (only two of whom, incidentally, come from Massachusetts: incumbent congressman Nicholas Mavroules and Barney Frank). It has, on the other hand, made its lists of contributors and activists (compiled separately) available to as many as a dozen politicians per week, who, looking for advice, seek out fund staffers. And it has done a variety of mailings, including notes from the senator, to supporters of those candidates. What it has done, in other words, is maintain a highly visible national profile for Ted Kennedy at a time when a state campaign and a grinding Washington schedule have kept him close to home. And what that has done, in turn, is create a lot of chits that, sooner or later, will be collected. (None of the fund’s mailings go into Massachusetts, however. State mailings are left entirely in the hands of the state campaign.)   

“Our primary goal is to get names,” says executive director Jack Leslie, a 29-year-old, strong-jawed Georgetown University graduate who joined Kennedy’s organization six years ago after toying with the idea of a career in the Foreign Service. “You usually lose money doing that. But we’ve been lucky, and haven’t.” The fund’s most ambitious mailing yet—a letter focused on the freeze and its ramifications—is now underway. By November, two million letters will have been mailed, and, with still more luck, 80,000 new contributors will have been added to the fund’s list. That list, of course, will have even more political value than the current one. And the political debts that the list’s users will owe Kennedy will be even greater.   

It is hard not to see all the activity, inside the Senate and out, as preparation for another run at the presidency. There are the slips of the tongue: “His future depends on the questions people ask themselves, the would-be home-buyers, for example,” says Shrum. “Will they fare better under this president or another president…uh…this senator or another senator.” There are the hints: “I had a longstanding sense that Ted Kennedy would be president of the United States,” says Bill Carrick. “Nothing has happened to change that sense. If anything, it’s been reinforced.”   

There is even the ambivalent explanation for all this preparation, for this mobilization, by the erstwhile presidential candidate himself.   

“To run again is a political judgment,” Kennedy said in mid-July in his small Senate office, festooned with family memorabilia ranging from boat models to framed handwritten letters to Santa Claus written by his three children. “I haven’t really refined my thinking on those kinds of considerations. But once you start dwelling on it, you begin to make the decision. Right now my full energies are directed toward the Senate race.   

“But I’m involved in the life of the party, and I speak on the issues. There are powerful arguments to be made on the economy and crime. So the things I do can be interpreted as preliminary to running for president, but they are also what should be done to maximize my influence in the Senate.”

Whatever happens, Ted Kennedy has learned the value of a well-organized machine, an organization that can make the man.