08.25.09

My Boss Teddy

Burt Ross, the former mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, remembers the summer he spent as Ted Kennedy’s first legislative intern—and the senator who only grew in stature from there.

“Hold the line for Senator Kennedy,” the operator said. Prone to being the butt of many a practical joke, I was sure one of my friends was pulling a fast one until the unmistakable New England Kennedyesque voice said, “Ah, Burt, welcome on board. It’s, ah, nice to have you on the team.” And so that’s how I heard I was to be Sen. Edward Kennedy’s first summer legislative intern in Washington, D.C. in 1963. As president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Young Democrats, I had supported the senator, and he has always been loyal to his supporters.

I remember picking up Kennedy at National Airport and driving him to the Senate Office Building. He sat in the back seat telling me to change lanes half a dozen times.

Those were heady times if you were a Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was president, Bobby was attorney general, and Teddy was barely of age to be in the Senate, having recently been elected to fill his brother’s seat. From the get-go, all eyes were on the tall, good looking Teddy with that winning smile. He was going places. It was just a matter of time. But first he needed to prove he deserved to be in the Senate.

The office was fast paced and all business, unlike nearby Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s office, where it seemed as if the secretaries were busy filing their nails. Sen. Kennedy walked fast, and seemed literally and figuratively like a man in a hurry. I remember picking him up at National Airport and driving him to the Senate Office Building. He sat in the back seat telling me to change lanes half a dozen times.

The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and VideosI reported directly to the senator’s friend, John Culver, who years later became the United States senator from Iowa. We were busy creating the form letters that every senator sends out to constituents. One morning all hell broke loose. I could hear Sen. Kennedy’s voice rise from within his private office. Somebody sent out form letter No. 24 rather than No. 42 and a voter who inquired about Social Security received a response about New England fisheries. We were a work in progress, and the senator was justifiably anxious. So many people were looking to put him down.

The senator was especially sensitive to criticism that he was doing his brother’s bidding and simply voted for everything the president wanted. I was assigned to compare Sen. Kennedy’s voting record with the record of several other prominent senators like Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey. A job which today with computers would have taken less than an hour took over a week, and each day the senator asked how it was going. He was flying up to Hyannis with the president for the weekend and they wanted to read it on the plane ride. Fortunately, the report was ready just in time and the conclusion brought a smile to the senator’s face. The fact was that Ted Kennedy on major votes deviated from the administration’s position a respectable amount of the time and we now had evidence to combat the critics.

I only saw the senator a couple of times after that summer. Fortunately, none of us had the curse of the Greek mythical character Cassandra, who could see the future but could do nothing to prevent it. We did not know his two brothers would be taken down by assassins, that the senator would be dragged from a plane crash with severe back injuries, that his son would have a leg amputated because of cancer, that he would go off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, that his marriage would end in divorce, that he would have to identify the corpse of his nephew John Jr. And yet, despite these tragedies and possibly because of them, Sen. Kennedy grew in stature. The man who was going places stayed put and labored for the underprivileged for over half a century in the United States Senate, where he earned the respect of both sides of the aisle.

As he is buried this week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be remembered as one of the giants in the history of the Senate. His record of accomplishment will equal that of any in his family.

Burt Ross, former mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and former administrator of the New Jersey Energy Office, is a lawyer and real-estate investor. A book,  The Bribe, was written about his exploits with the Mafia.