The Making of the Remaking of Edward M. Kennedy


A week after the tax battle, hundreds of Kennedy contributors—the “maximizers” who’d given the legal limit of $2,000 per couple to the senator and $5,000 to his Fund for a Democratic Majority, and the smaller fishes, who’d anted up $500 per couple—were brought to the compound. The maximizers would stay at nearby hotels for a private breakfast meeting. All would join with family members for a picture-perfect afternoon clambake. And mother Rose, for the third time in two weeks, would be hailed with “Happy Birthday.”   

Under a long yellow-and-white-striped tent, serenaded by a dixieland band in the shade of the late Ambassador Joe Kennedy’s porch, on the lawn where Joe’s sons and daughters, their girlfriends and boyfriends used to rough one another up in their touch-football games, the givers are given lobster, clams, corn, as much booze as they can stomach, and the chance to chit-chat with Ted Kennedy as he moves among them gingerly, his sport shirt open, exposing the thick-tufted white hair covering his chest. He walks stooped forward, his injured back not allowing him to stand quite erect. “Have you been on the boat yet?” he asks, pointing across the dunes to the leased excursion boat brought over for the afternoon. “Have you eaten yet?” he inquires, pointing to the tables laden with food. He doesn’t eat, nor does he drink.   

Eventually, his mother comes out on the porch. Steadied by her son, she waves and thanks the group for coming. She asks him if everyone had something to eat. He jokes to the group, “Whenever mother sees me, she tells me to get a haircut. Or she corrects my grammar. In 1980, she told me to lose 10 pounds, and I went up 10 points. Then she told me to cut my hair, and I went up another 10 points. Then I thought I could do it on my own.”   

The crowd laughs gaily, giddy with anticipation of Ted Kennedy’s latest next start. Not a cloud mars the blue sky. In the distance, a small plane approaches, towing a banner. Circling the compound, the plane’s message becomes visible. “$10,000,” it reads, “FOR DEBATE…RAY SHAMIE.”   

There is laughter, and on one corner of the lawn a volleyball game begins. Eventually the bar closes, and the yellow school buses hired for the affair bring the clambakers back to the parking lot at Dunfey’s. In the front seat of the last departing bus, an intoxicated maximizer attempts to address the other passengers. “All right, class,” he slurs, “it’s time for the ‘Pledge of Allegiance.'” His date tries to quiet him. He shrugs her off. “Let’s take roll call,” he mumbles, then seems to recall where he is.   

“Seriously, friends,” he says, weaving, “I come from North Carolina. You know who we got for senators? Jesse Helms and John East.” A broad smile crosses his face as the bus lurches to a stop at the hotel.    

“Ah just want to thank you for giving us Ted Kennedy.”

Back in Washington, immersed again in Senate business, Ted Kennedy can’t shake the notion that he might have made a more compelling argument—weeks earlier—in his Harvard debate with Senator Gordon Humphrey. Humphrey had suggested a freeze would not only undercut the psychological threat of a nuclear attack, but might also turn the military establishment against the government.   

“When Humphrey raised the issue of the reaction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a freeze,” Kennedy says, “I should have said something like, ‘What’s General Jones going to do? After 30 years in the military, is he going to throw it in?'”   

These are minor setbacks, Kennedy is saying; battles, not wars. In a career of public service, where politics can change from week to week, where Ronald Reagan, for god’s sake, can propose a tax increase and where Ted Kennedy can support it, in this world, a defeat is not the end.  

It can be the start of a new beginning.