On the cool, gray afternoon of April 21, some of Washington's shiniest political stars invaded The SEED School, a small public charter school serving students from some of the city's roughest neighborhoods. The president and first lady, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former president Bill Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell and a raft of senators, House members and other luminaries streamed across the Anacostia River into Southeast Washington for the signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The legislation, aimed at tripling the size of AmeriCorps, had passed with broad bipartisan support. Yet all involved agreed that it should bear Kennedy's name in honor of his lifelong public service. President Obama poured praise on the liberal icon: "There are very few people who have touched the life of this nation in the same breadth and the same order of magnitude than the person who is seated right behind me. And so this is just an extraordinary day for him. And I am truly grateful and honored to call him a friend, a colleague, and one of the finest leaders we've ever had—Ted Kennedy."
It's tempting to dismiss the lionization of an ailing political veteran in the twilight of his career. As Noah Cross, villain of the 1974 film Chinatown, shrewdly observed, "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." But even allowing that Kennedy had a career marred by personal and political controversy, it's hard to argue that anyone outperformed him as a legislator for the better part of four decades.
Kennedy's fingerprints mark an improbably long list of legislation in areas ranging from civil rights to education to worker protections to immigration to health care to ... well, you get the picture. Just as notably, he is credited with having beaten back many antiliberal measures, especially during the Reagan era. A synopsis of Kennedy's legislative achievements from 1962-2009, compiled by his office, runs 54 pages and opens with this helpful data point: "Senator Kennedy has authored more than 2,500 bills throughout his career in the United States Senate. Of those bills, several hundred have become Public Law." Former majority leader Tom Daschle echoes numerous past and current colleagues when he exults, "Ted Kennedy may be the most masterful legislator in American history."
In recent years, there has been much analysis of the qualities that fueled Kennedy's legislative success: his grinding work ethic (sustained even during his hard-partying days), his embrace of bipartisan compromise (despite his enduring role as the GOP's favorite left-wing bogeyman), his ability to attract and retain gifted staff, his personal charm and his feel for what he called the "chemical" nature of the Senate. Certainly, the family name and fortune conferred advantages. But tragedy and failure (something of a birthright for the Kennedys) also played a recurring role in his development. Most dramatically, of course, the Greek-scale tragedy of his brothers' deaths instilled in Kennedy a sense of duty and commitment to their dearest causes (civil rights, Vietnam, the war on poverty). But other, more personal setbacks also left their imprint. Starting with the senator's earliest days in office, the best thing to happen to American liberalism may have been when something bad happened to Ted Kennedy.
At 10:50 on the night of June 19, 1964, just seven months after President Kennedy's assassination, the private plane carrying the senator from Washington to the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention in West Springfield hit a tree as it was preparing to land. The pilot was killed on impact; Kennedy aide Ed Moss died the next day. Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh and his wife, Marvella, crawled from the wreckage largely unharmed, with Birch returning to pull the semiparalyzed Kennedy from a shattered rear window. Kennedy suffered a collapsed lung, two fractured ribs and, most seriously, a broken back. Doctors wanted to fuse the damaged vertebrae, but, Joe Kennedy Sr., having witnessed his son Jack's postoperative spinal agonies, rejected the idea. Instead, for the next five months, Ted lay immobilized in a metal frame as his vertebrae reknit themselves. During this forced convalescence, the freshman senator reinvented himself as a serious student of policy.
This is not to suggest that Kennedy's abbreviated freshman term had gone badly. As the president's underachieving brother, he had arrived with a reputation as arrogant, entitled, unserious, and—thanks to an awkward speaking style and a cheating scandal from his Harvard days—not terribly bright. But young Ted displayed a keen and immediate grasp of his proper place in the Senate, paying homage to the old Southern bulls in charge and scrupulously avoiding the limelight. He exceeded expectations by striving to be unexceptional.
Stuck flat on his back in a hospital bed, however, Kennedy set about distinguishing himself on the issues. As recounted in various biographies, the senator read voraciously and invited experts from a range of fields to conduct bedside seminars: John Kenneth Galbraith on economics; Jerome Wiesner on science; Sam Beer on state and local government. Even Harvard's Mark DeWolfe Howe, who had trashed Kennedy during the 1962 Senate race, came to tutor him on civil-rights law. (Being the president's brother did have its perks.) All pronounced the senator a diligent, motivated pupil. If Jack's assassination had given Ted a greater sense of responsibility, his own close call clarified his priorities. (Among other developments: his hospital stay started him thinking about the financial strain of health care on less-affluent Americans, a subject that evolved into his signature issue.) As Kennedy noted the following year: "I had a lot of time to think about what was important and what was not and about what I wanted to do with my life. I think I gained something from those six months that will be valuable the rest of my life."
Returning to the Senate in January 1965, Kennedy began displaying a taste and talent for the peculiar rhythms of legislating that neither of his more celebrated brothers ever possessed. Ironically, recounts Adam Clymer in his voluminous Edward M. Kennedy, a Biography, the first battle to gain him widespread plaudits—his crusade to abolish the poll tax—was one that he lost. Again calling in big-name experts to help research and consult, Kennedy pushed the issue through the Judiciary Committee only to have it die on the Senate floor. Undeterred, he began whipping up votes to try again. Opposed by President Johnson, the measure was ultimately defeated, 49-45, but Kennedy's energetic leadership led both colleagues and the press to declare his arrival as a legislative force.
Kennedy's reputation grew as he began racking up victories, including establishing a National Teacher Corps, creating a system of community health clinics, and reforming immigration law to do away with quotas related to national origin. Kennedy always did his homework, a practice he never abandoned. "He devours briefing books like some people read novels," said Jim Manley, a Kennedy staffer during the 1980s and '90s who now serves as communications director for Majority Leader Harry Reid, in an interview a few months before the senator's death. "No one is better prepared than he is whenever he steps to the floor."
By January 1969, the 36-year-old Kennedy had enough institutional juice to unseat Louisiana's Russell Long as majority whip, becoming the youngest senator to hold the office. Largely concerned with ego stroking, vote scheduling and maintaining party discipline, the job could be tedious and time consuming. Kennedy hoped to transform it into a platform for battling the Nixon administration. And, of course, his ascension to the leadership helped his presidential prospects, already fueled by those who dreamed of his redeeming Robert's stolen promise. But Kennedy's swift rise ended that July, when, following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, the senator drove his Oldsmobile off a small bridge into Poucha Pond. His passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned, and Kennedy's reputation never wholly recovered. Running for president in 1972 was out of the question. More immediately, while Massachusetts reelected Kennedy in 1970, his profile and influence sank further when, as the new Congress convened, he lost his whip post to West Virginia's Robert Byrd. Kennedy's days in the leadership were over. In later years, he insisted that the defeat had been one of the best things to happen to him, because it had refocused him on committee work.
Rationalization or not, Kennedy arguably had a more lasting impact by independently crusading for bills—and cutting compromises on them—than would have been possible had he been a member of the leadership worried about managing the caucus. Among his biggest wins of the early 1970s was, as head of the subcommittee on health, an increase in funding for cancer research. Taking up two of brother Robert's pet causes, he successfully pushed for a nationwide program to combat hunger, as well as legislation to improve schools on Indian reservations. He spearheaded passage of the 1972 Title IX law requiring equal funding for girls' and boys' school sports programs. Post-Watergate, he was central to the bipartisan overhaul of the campaign-finance system. He cosponsored the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. And he won creation of a disaster-relief force within the United Nations.
By the mid-'70s, there was again talk of Kennedy running for the White House. The senator declined, partly out of concern for his first wife, Joan (then battling alcoholism), and his eldest son, Teddy Jr., who in 1973 had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer requiring amputation of his right leg followed by two years of experimental chemotherapy. (Once more, health care took center stage in Kennedy's world.) The election in 1976 of fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter ushered in the least productive period of Kennedy's legislative career. Suddenly, Kennedy was no longer the most prominent Democrat in town. Worse still, the two men shared neither affection nor policy priorities. (Most glaringly, Carter felt no urgency to establish a national health-insurance system.) In the late '70s, Kennedy played a central role in deregulating the airline and trucking industries (a perhaps ironic legacy for the liberal lion). But by the time the 1980 race rolled around, he was frustrated enough with Carter to launch an ill-fated primary challenge. The ghost of Chappaquiddick took its toll, as did Kennedy's lackluster performance early in the race. Carter prevailed—albeit only to lead his party to slaughter that November.
Political observers often point to Kennedy's 1980 defeat as the moment he began to face the possibility that he might never be president, that his political destiny might lie solely within the Senate. To what degree Kennedy's loss freed him from the distraction or burden of his presidential aspirations is unknowable. (He did, after all, flirt briefly with the idea of running in 1984). But there's no question that the Reagan Revolution signaled a revival for him. Unchastened by the GOP sweep, he came out swinging, determined to serve as a loud, proud liberal bulwark against Reaganism both abroad and at home.
He fought the administration's efforts to erode civil-rights protections and safety-net programs such as Social Security and Legal Aid. Inspired by relationships he had forged during the primary, he took up the causes of women's rights and gay rights. During the years the Republicans controlled the Senate (and thus all committee hearings), Kennedy used his celebrity to host public forums presenting the issues from a Democratic perspective. (One notable win during this period was enactment of COBRA health-care provisions in 1986.) When Democrats recaptured the majority in 1986, the Labor and Human Resource Committee under Kennedy began churning out bills. As the late Michael Kelly observed in his often brutal 1990 profile of Kennedy in GQ, "The 100th Congress (1987-1988) was the best period he or almost any senator has ever had: Kennedy moved more than twenty major pieces of his own legislation though the Senate, including a comprehensive plan to assure medical care, support services, and discrimination protection for people with AIDS."
The 1990s arguably proved even more productive. From his perch atop the Labor Committee, Kennedy introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, he took the lead on the Child Care Act, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990, the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, and the National Community Services Act. He coauthored the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, cosponsored the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, and cosponsored the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) of 1997.
Kennedy worked much of his legislative magic by making common cause with the strangest of bedfellows. "Despite his liberal reputation, he never felt compromise was a dirty word," said Jim Manley. "He tries to get as much as he can, recognizing that politics is the art of compromise." It is indeed startling to consider how many fire-breathing Republicans joined forces with him throughout the years: Howard Baker, Strom Thurmond, Mike Enzi, Don Nickles, Judd Gregg, Orrin Hatch (famous for saying he came to Washington to "fight Ted Kennedy" . As the legend goes, by the 1990s, so adroit was Kennedy at working his will by crossing party lines that Republican leaders began instructing members not to cosponsor bills with him. Even in the partisan atmosphere of George W. Bush's Washington, Kennedy held his nose and tried to find ways to cooperate. Without his aggressive support, Bush likely wouldn't have passed his two most significant domestic measures: No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug bill.
For all his legislative accomplishments, Kennedy never realized his most cherished goal: enactment of a national health-care system. But that battle isn't over. The Obama White House has made health-care reform its top priority, and during Kennedy's struggle with brain cancer, some of his colleagues noted that his illness added urgency to the cause. It's somehow fitting that even in this last crusade, Kennedy's misfortunes have served to highlight the liberal values to which he devoted his life.