The Making of the Remaking of Edward M. Kennedy


This is the fifth Senate campaign for Ted Kennedy, and only once has less than 59 percent of the electorate in the commonwealth voted for him. That was in 1962, when he was 30 years old, inexperienced, a political novice. His slogan was “His Voice Will Be Heard,” a credible promise in light of the fact that his brother was president. 

Despite the nearly $2 million budgeted by opponent Shamie and two conservative political-action committees (the National Conservative and the Life Amendment) to defeat him, the polls suggest that Kennedy will win again handily. This, of course, is a virtual requirement if he is to reemerge as a national candidate, and the Kennedy staff admits that only a landslide will convince the skeptics that Kennedy hasn’t in some way slipped. “A fact of American political life is that 52 percent is a solid majority,” says political director Bill Carrick, “and 55 percent is a landslide. If we don’t win by 60 percent, it’s considered a defeat!”

Still, if there’s frustration, it’s to be found in the Shamie camp, not in Kennedy’s. The Republican has offered $10,000 to anyone who can arrange a debate between himself and the incumbent. And there’ve been no takers. The Kennedy people, for their part, have limited their emotionalism to responses to a comic-book campaign run by Citizens Organized to Replace Kennedy (CORK), an offshoot of the Life Amendment Political Action Committee, a campaign that serves to remind one that the senator’s moral character will always be an issue. A tacky issue, perhaps. But an issue nonetheless.

“He’s outlasted the bad rap that he only represents old ideas,” says Bob Shrum. “Has he outlasted Chappaquiddick? Who knows. My own sense is that the longer he’s visible, things like the 1980 campaign, like his voting against the Reagan tax cut last year—and he was the only senator up for reelection to do so—add to the positive evaluation of his character.”

The CORK campaign is housed in a small white brick building halfway down an alley off Independence Avenue, in Washington. A small sign propped next to the front door proclaims the 4 Library Court address as the home of the American Life Lobby—an umbrella that includes CORK, the Life Amendment Committee, and others. The first floor is cluttered with desks, but only a secretary and CORK’s number-two man, Gary Curran, a former Appalachian Commission aide under presidents Nixon and Ford, seem to spend much time here. The man running CORK, Paul Brown, splits his time between Washington and California.

Curran, who looks a bit like an overweight nephew of Jimmy Carter, hopes to put two million Kennedy comic books in Massachusetts by the end of the campaign. He thinks the comics—which attack Kennedy on issues ranging from his conduct at Chappaquiddick to his number of missed Senate votes—are “an effort to match his voting record with him.” Kennedy’s press secretary calls it hate-mongering trash.

 “We get angry calls,” concedes Curran, “from people who say this hurts the Kennedy family. But that’s why we’re doing it. To get behind the mystique.” The issue of abortion—whether abortions should be paid for with federal funds—is Curran’s main concern. There is, in the end, no other issue for CORK.

“Abortion is murder,” Curran concludes. “It makes the question of other issues moot. If I know someone in public office who votes to federally fund it, I don’t have to know any more. He’s beyond the pale. Unacceptable.” Truth be told, Curran doesn’t even like to discuss the subject.

“When I was growing up, as a kid and a teenager, we never talked about it.”   

In Boston, in the cavernous Kennedy reelection headquarters on the second floor of 140 Federal Street, Eddy Martin is dismissing the abortion issue. “Nobody’s really for abortion,” he says. “And nobody’s really against arms reduction. It’s just a matter of the techniques.” Martin has been around long enough to see most of them. A former reporter who spent 18 years working for papers like the old New York Post and the Herald Traveler, Martin joined Kennedy in 1962 and—with the exception of leaves of absence to work for NASA, and for the Department of Housing and Urban Development—has been with him ever since. Although Martin remains on the Senate payroll, he is handling most of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the Massachusetts campaign.   

The most visible profile in the reelection effort other than Kennedy’s belongs to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. A 31-year-old lawyer, Townsend worked on environmental-issue positions for the senator in 1980, and traveled across the country. “My baby was six months old, and had already traveled 25,000 miles,” she says.   

“We’re surrogates,” Townsend adds. “I think that’s what they call us. Surrogate Kennedys. But this is different, actually managing a campaign. My brother, Joe, did this in 1976.” (Joe now spends most of his time running his oil-import company.) Townsend has a good deal of the intensity of her late father, Robert, and answers inquiries aggressively. Small, bespectacled, her brown hair parted in the middle and falling short of her shoulders, she admires her uncle not only for his liberalism, but also for his ability to handle stress, to change. “During the latter part of 1980, he began reaching out. A lot of people felt he’d ignored them, and now he’s making an effort. He’s always had that ability to talk to people, to talk with his family, but what happens is that sometimes you get isolated from your best instincts. I don’t know why.   

“It’s hard when you’re in public life—or private—to reveal yourself. With a Chappaquiddick, when you’ve had such a personal defeat, if you can open yourself up to other people’s problems in the face of the devastation of your own aspiration, it’s remarkable.”   

Ted Kennedy, his niece seems to be saying, lost the Democratic nomination two years ago because he was still undergoing a kind of do-it-yourself therapy. “People go to psychiatrists for years to be able to open themselves up,” she adds. “Why shouldn’t he have had to struggle?”   

And indeed, the implicit answer to the rhetorical question is that he’s emerged as stronger, better: now Ted Kennedy is a true man of the people.   

Unfortunately, the Gallup poll reported in early summer suggests that the people may not yet ready to share this vision. While its figures say that as a presidential nominee Kennedy is the two-to-one preference of registered Democrats (at least when given Walter Mondale as their other option), when Independent voters are figured into the tabulation and Ronald Reagan is put forth as the Republican opposition, Kennedy fares no better than Mondale. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they both beat Reagan.    

Of course, the economy is so bad under Reagan that mandates for change are not tough to come by in 1982. Indeed, Kennedy’s immediate focus after the Senate election in November will be to develop and deliver a series of positions on what are known in Washington as the broad economic issues: tax relief and reform (he will probably develop some system of incentives), a restructuring of the Federal Reserve banking system, and wage and price controls. Still another newcomer has been brought aboard to study these matters: David Smith, a former community-development expert who worked for years in Roxbury (and, in the late sixties, spent some time with the Students for a Democratic Society), will work for Kennedy on the payroll of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.   

Smith, unlike many of the Kennedy men in their late thirties, comes from a background of local action; he turned to national economic questions (and began teaching them at the University of Massachusetts in Boston) less than a decade ago. Coming to Washington was not easy for him. “The argument I had with myself went something like this,” he recalls. “You decided the national economic debate was crucial. Kennedy’s role in shaping the debate is crucial, and anything he does will call attention to his arguments. I decided it exceeded any other option I had.” The populism that Smith will bring to the senator’s economic plan is emphasized by the fact that, in a town where graduate degrees are as common as $100 hotel rooms, Smith doesn’t hold a PhD in economics.   

While Smith begins to outline Kennedy’s new economic ideas, the senator himself is fighting a holding action on Reaganomics. The administration’s attempt to cut $1.4 billion out of Medicare reimbursements on July 21 was a typical example. Kennedy made his defense that morning virtually alone on the Senate floor, flanked by Larry Horowitz. The galleries were less than one-third full. There were television cameras waiting outside. While Senator David Durenberger, from Minnesota, maintained that “cost sharing is an important part of hospital health care,” and that “there are no freebies in health care,” Kennedy took notes quietly. When it was his turn, he spoke forcefully and persuasively, arguing, “The point is that you can put limits on hospitals and on doctors but they can raise the costs for everyone else. You talk about limits, but we’re not asking them to tighten their belts…I continue to make the argument for equity and fairness.”   

Though equity and fairness lost, an hour later, on a 53-46 vote, Kennedy’s effectiveness was quickly acknowledged. Republican Whip Robert Dole, in charge of the overall administration tax-bill effort, spoke with Kennedy and agreed to rewrite the Medicare legislation. A total of $400 million of the Republican cut was restored. In the summer of 1982, Kennedy would count that as no small victory, at the same time saying he felt he could have done better. “The time limits,” he would explain. “We have to gear up overnight on these things. The range of tax issues is enormously complicated, and having to do so much so quickly is wrong.”   

Smith agrees. “Everything is done around here in 15-minute bursts. And the strain on people like me is less than it is on Kennedy.”

Kennedy thinks the aspect of strain is overrated, at least as it concerns his staff. “When we ran the Judiciary Committee,” he says, “the staff felt more valuable and had additional responsibilities. Their work was more satisfying…and we got more-efficient results.”

Nevertheless, his time is precious. The various Kennedy constituencies: party candidates, unions, the voters, Congress, all want a piece of him. And the strategy is to spread himself as thin as possible. Even so, political director Carrick wishes Kennedy weren’t tied to an office. “It would be better to be Mondale right now,” he says. “It’s a distraction.” Sometimes, the Kennedy staffers say, they wish their man of the people was more of a man for himself.
Still, a campaign is a campaign, and what must be done must be done. And if the man of the people has to bring the myth of the family out once in a while, so be it.