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Production Diary | Interview with Senator Ted Kennedy

May 21, 2008

Senator Ted KennedyThe Kennedy brothers of the Camelot generation were not alike: brash Joe had the presumptive air of an aristocratic first son, imperious and unafraid; John, for all the romance that later accrued to him, was as much a bootlegger's son as a scholarly dreamer, and schemed ruthlessly for a place in history; Bobby was the wounded poet, ambivalent about his quest but obligated to pursue it; and then there was Teddy, who began as the chubby-cheeked family pet, and for many years seemed unable to grow up, lost in the long shadows of his mythologized dead brethren.

"As the ninth member of a large Irish family, I always had to rely on humor in order to be able to survive," Kennedy said last week, less than 48 hours before he would suffer a foreboding seizure. Survive he did, for 76 years so far, much of it in public service – and so, unlike his brothers, he could take responsibility for a whole life, and add a chapter to his family legacy that none of them were allowed: maturity and redemption.

Kyle Nicholoff and I went to Kennedy's office in Russell Senate Office Building at the U.S. Capitol with a Wyoming PBS camera to tape a short interview about his relationship with Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Humor was Simpson's weapon, too, and so "we just sort of cooked right from the beginning," said Kennedy. Not just telling jokes – early on, each took on oar on a legislative boat that no one wanted to row, the reform of the nation's leaky immigration law. "We had very, very different philosophies, but what I found very quickly was that Al Simpson was interested in getting things done for Wyoming, and interested in getting things done for the country."

In that remark you find several things that typify what Kennedy had become: his unselfish personal loyalty, his devotion to the legislative process, and his willingness to hang up the ideological spurs in the interest of "getting things done." Even those who found the outcomes disagreeable concede that Kennedy's skill at navigating ideological gridlock is the only reason any progress has been made in the past decade on issues ranging from mental health funding to gender pay disparity to Medicare prescription drug reform. Think of "No Child Left Behind" – the George W. Bush Administration's controversial reform of education, which was twice saved from congressional oblivion by the Massachusetts senator Republicans scorned as "the most liberal" politician in Washington. (Of course, liberals called him that, too, in much sweeter tones.)

Neither of the brothers who preceded Ted Kennedy in the Senate showed his knack, or interest, in the sausage-making process of creating laws. But when Kennedy talked last week about the immigration bills that he worked on with Simpson, dating back more than 20 years, his relish was evident. "(Simpson) wanted a provision that if a person came on in here and created some ten jobs, or invested a million dollars, they'd be able to get green cards to come on in and get on the road to citizenship. I differed with that, because I said we should not be permitting individuals to buy their way into the United States – it should all be done on the basis of merit.

"The next year, after the bill failed, we were working out the compromise, and he said, ‘Hey, Ted, I need that provision.' I said, ‘the one I'm against?', and he said, ‘I'm supporting some of the things you want, I need that provision.'

"So I supported provision, and up gets (Sen.) Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), and he says, ‘Now, Kennedy –‘" and the Senator was chuckling as he mimicked Sarbanes Maryland pronunciation – "‘last year you said it would only be on merit.' And I said, ‘I'm going to let Al Simpson handle the response.'

"You know, it was just a small item, but at the time we differed we had a vigorous debate and discussion – and (the following year) in terms of the totality of trying to make important changes in immigration at that time, it was more important to get the bill done."

Interview with Senator Ted KennedyEdward Moore Kennedy took brother John's Senate seat in 1962, a callow 30-year-old whose primary opponent suggested he would not have been on any ballot if his name had simply been Edward Moore. The assassinations of two brothers made him the patriarch of a huge and troubled clan – and while he was, by all accounts, stalwart in his role as surrogate father to his brothers' broods, he seemed less able to manage himself. In 1969, he drove a car off a bridge and a young female campaign worker drowned. The travails of younger Kennedy's visibly weighed on him, and he was hobbled for most of his life by back injuries suffered in a plane crash, he suffered a lifelong back injury in a plane crash, and was unable to save various younger Kennedy's from drugs and misbehavior a mantle he shouldered for his brothers' children, but it is not just Kennedy's longevity – he came into the Senate in 1962 as a callow 30-year-old, as a colleague and met another Simpson, Milward – that inspires the encomiums now coming from his colleagues.

On Thursday evening, Kennedy arrived late for our interview, which his press people had warned us would be a strictly enforced 15 minutes long. Maybe five minutes, they said, when he finally walked in, and unleashed his dogs Sunny and Splash to run round the room. But he stayed 15 minutes, waving off the buzzers that call senators to votes on the floor. And when the 15 minutes were up, and his poor press secretary was wringing her hands and waving at me to shut up, he said, "One other point –"

And he talked about how he and his friend Al Simpson loved the arts, and worked together to improve the cultural opportunities in Washington, D.C. "By the nature of our positions," he said, "you could get wonderful responses. That was a great fun time. It's not a thing that (legislators) are often interested in. Al had an enormously genuine interest. All the people in Wyoming understand his family's love of art…This again was a kind of unifying factor."

He sat amidst paintings of boats under sail, some with his own signature. The most beautiful canvas in the room was by another artist, a large, sepia toned painting of a solo sailor with a good wind behind heading away from us toward the open sea.  Even from behind, there was no mistaking President John Kennedy. That kind of image reassured me, having grown up in the era when the Kennedy family was such a national obsession – it suggested that while they had sacrificed so much of their privacy and their inner lives to the mythology of their public roles, they found renewal the way you and I do, away from the cameras and the crowds, in the face of the wind and the naked canvas of nature.

News reports say that after leaving the hospital last weekend with a grim diagnosis of malignant glioma in the left parietal lobe of his brain, Kennedy was headed to his boat and the ocean.

Fair wind.

"never let the perfect be the enemy of the good"