Kennedy Still Shoving the Plow

Ah, the perils of open microphones. An open microphone in 2000 caught George W. Bush calling a New York Times reporter, Adam Clymer, a major-league a*****e.

A microphone caught Jack Kennedy in 1958 telling Teddy Kennedy that being married didn't mean having to be faithful to his bride. That conversation was recorded on Teddy's wedding movie, as related by Teddy's biographer, Adam Clymer.

Clymer is best known for being the target of Bush's epithet. But Clymer deserves to be known for his 1999 book, Edward M. Kennedy, A Biography.

The subtitle is a slight misnomer. This is specifically a legislative biography. It mentions Kennedy's scandals and tragedies, but doesn't dwell on them. Rather, it focuses on Kennedy's career as an effective and productive US senator. Kennedy the masterful legislator is ultimately more interesting than the figure of scandal and tragedy.

Page after page, chapter after chapter, the pattern in Clymer's book is Kennedy's relentlessness. Kennedy has been fighting for health care for decades, and he won't give up. He's been fighting for a decent minimum wage for decades, a battle that, with inflation, never stays won.

He's fought against nuclear arms and fought for human rights. He's largely responsible for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary.

The book includes details that you probably don't know and details that you've forgotten. Kennedy has taken the leading or second-leading role on so many legislative struggles, you need a 692-page book to remember them all. The book recounts Kennedy's legislative maneuvering and skirmishing for the rights of labor unions; the law requiring that workers be notified before plants are closed; a ban on polygraph tests in the workplace; a ban on job discrimination against gays; education funding; civil rights; AIDS research; nutrition and hunger programs; regulating tobacco; and deregulating airlines.

OK, so airline deregulation didn't turn out as we had hoped. Still, it shows that Kennedy is not a doctrinaire liberal.

What's ironic is that Republicans use Kennedy to incite their ranks, while Clymer portrays Kennedy as often a conciliator, even with Republicans. In 1983, the Moral Majority mistakenly sent one of its fundraising letters to Kennedy, asking for money to "fight ultraliberals such as Ted Kennedy."

That computerized letter led to an exchange of personal letters between Kennedy's and Falwell's offices. Kennedy ended up having dinner at Jerry Falwell's house, and speaking to an audience of 5,000 of Falwell's followers. Falwell was so impressed that his fundraising letters stopped attacking Kennedy.

That's how Kennedy got to be so successful: building consensuses with Republicans.

Kennedy could "sail the blue waters of the Mediterranean and forget all the problems of society and very often he would have had much justification for doing so. Nevertheless, he's never taken his hand away from the plow."

That quotation is from a Kennedy campaign commercial 18 years ago. Three terms later, it's still true. Kennedy could be coasting, but he's still studying issues, picking top-notch staff, consulting experts, assembling alliances, and prodding the president to do the right thing.

The book quotes Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, describing Kennedy in 1996 working on wage and health insurance bills: "He was really like this enthusiastic freshman looking for more work and demonstrating his capacity for taking on even more roles. But instead of a freshman I had somebody with thirty years' experience across the table."

Part of the book was painful -- reliving the small-mindedness of the Carter era and the heartlessness of the Reagan era.

One particular feature of the book was fun: the names sprinkled throughout, including former Kennedy staffers Patti Saris and Richard Stearns, who are now federal judges in Boston; and Stephen Breyer, now a US Supreme Court Justice. There's a management lesson hidden in this biography: Hire the best people, let them toil for and teach you, send ëem off to do greater things, and other talented and ambitious people will come to replace them.

In March 2000, I stood at the Ward School in Newton, Mass. on the day of the presidential primary and asked voters to sign Kennedy's renomination papers. Many refused. Maybe it was their disgust at Kennedy's personal scandals.

I'm appalled at how Kennedy has messed up, but I'm awed that he doesn't give up. On Nov. 7, 2000, back at the Ward School, I proudly pulled the lever for Ted Kennedy.

Well, not literally. I point to the levers, and my 6-year-old daughter gets to pull them in the voting booth. But I explained to her and I want her to remember that she helped me vote for one of the best senators in the two-century history of the US Senate.

I'm convinced that's true after reading the book by Adam Clymer, who is a major-league biographer.

Ken Bresler is a writing coach and comprehension enhancer at the Clear Writing Co., Contact him at, or 617-964-5080.

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