Washington is packed with outsized personalities, but when Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is on the other end of the phone, some of the biggest names in town drop all pretense and revert to respectful subservience.
"I haven't worked for him in 30 years, and he's still the boss and I'm the employee," said Ken Feinberg, a top mediation expert who handled the delicate negotiations over the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Feinberg served as special counsel to Kennedy from 1975 to 1980 on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he toiled in obscurity with fellow staffers Stephen Breyer and David Boies, among others.
During his 46 years in the Senate, Kennedy has amassed an unparalleled group of alumni staff that numbers in the thousands. Its members act as a sounding board on an encyclopedia of topics, an expert-opinion council, and, lately, as a support network for the ailing politician, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor last May.
A cadre of former Kennedyites has already formed around President-elect Obama and is poised to play key roles in his administration. Democratic go-to lawyer Greg Craig has signed on as White House counselor, and Obama tapped think-tanker Melody Barnes as domestic policy adviser. Stephanie Cutter is also in the thick of things, working on the presidential transition team and, before that, as chief of staff to Michelle Obama. It's rumored that Cutter will likely land a senior White House communications post by the time Obama takes the oath of office.
"Having those relationships makes doing the work going forward much easer," said Barnes, who worked for Kennedy from 1995 to 2003. "You know their perspective."
Kennedy "always takes the long view--'Let's get half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf; they'll be back.' "-- Ken Feinberg
Even before Obama's arrival, it was nearly impossible to walk a block in the nation's capital without bumping into someone who has worked for the senior senator from Massachusetts. "In the normal course of your days in Washington it's pretty difficult not to be running across ex-Kennedy people," said Joe Onek, senior counsel to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
A young Onek joined Kennedy's staff in 1969, two weeks before the Chappaquiddick incident, and left in 1971. He said that it was a difficult period for his boss but that Kennedy plowed through and kept to his legislative agenda. "I was coming off [a clerkship at] the Supreme Court and I thought I was a hotshot," Onek recalls. "Even in those days, he was an embryo of the Ted Kennedy he would become. I was very impressed."
Onek is still in touch with former Kennedy staffers from various eras, including Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman, who was an aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., and worked on Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign; Jim Steinberg, Obama's deputy secretary of State nominee; and Esther Olavarria, who handled immigration issues for Kennedy until recently and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
When a question arose recently in the speaker's office about new legislation for 9/11 first responders, Onek called another Kennedy alum for some expert advice. "How could we not consult with Ken Feinberg?" he said.
Former Kennedy staffers say that working for the senator creates an immediate bond, regardless of when they served. "We all tend to stick together, we all like each other, and there's not a lot of drama," said Patty First, a principal at the Raben Group. She was Kennedy's immigration counsel from 1995 to 1998. "It's a connection that you have, and it gives you an instant way to talk to people."
Tom Susman, now chief lobbyist for the American Bar Association, never hesitates to call fellow Kennedy alums when he's in need -- either for business or to help somebody's kid get a job. "I know I'll get the right names and connections," he said. Susman joined the senator's staff in 1968 as an assistant adviser and worked his way up to general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1979. He also worked on Kennedy's 1980 presidential run.
Kennedy's 1980 campaign staff remains particularly close. Several, including Bill Carrick, Steve Murphy, and Bob Shrum, went on to work on other races, including the 1988 presidential bid of then-Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Carrick, who served as Kennedy's political director from 1982 to 1987, still talks with Shrum three to four times a month, and with physician and producer Larry Horowitz three to four times a week. "Mostly because we're buddies," he said.
Kennedy throws occasional parties to help stay connected to his former employees. His Christmas party is legendary, and his 75th birthday bash in Washington in 2007 brought out more than 300 alums. Many say that the events are as helpful to them for catching up and networking as they are for the senator himself. "He's very good about remembering his former staff and calling on them when he needs help," First said. "He's good at keeping tabs on where you've gone."
Plenty of them are now in top positions of influence, both inside and outside government. Jim Guest, the CEO of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, was a legislative assistant to Kennedy from 1968 to 1971, handling health, fishing, and energy issues. He stays in touch with Kennedy's longtime aide, Carey Parker. Late last year, Guest went up to Capitol Hill to meet with the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which Kennedy chairs. "It's where I started," Guest said. "I came full circle."
Kennedy's network of former staffers remains so useful to him because many have stayed committed to causes near to his heart, such as health care and immigration reform. "You work for him because he is working on issues you care about, and you share his vision for the country," First said. "We all still share those ideals, and we've gone on to other jobs where we can move them forward."
"I learned a great deal about how to get on with people."-- Justice Stephen Breyer
His ex-staffers credit Kennedy with schooling them in the art of politics and launching them on their careers, which have often included long stints of public service. "Senator Kennedy has both an extraordinary command of the Senate and a remarkable intuition about people," said Jeff Blattner, a lawyer who served on Kennedy's staff from 1987 to 1995. "I learned the legislative process from one of the great masters of all time."
Kennedy also has a knack for winning over opponents. "I learned a great deal about how to get on with people," Supreme Court Justice Breyer told National Journal. "He figures out ways to get along with people that don't agree with him."
Part of Kennedy's gift is his unwillingness to hand off tough negotiations to his staff -- or to stand on ceremony. "He'll always keep that dialogue going," said Ranny Cooper, president of public affairs for Weber Shandwick. "It was unusual for a senator to go to the House side, but if that's what it took to keep a conversation going, that's what he'd do." Cooper worked for Kennedy from 1982 to 1993 and remains a close friend of the family's.
Kennedy taught the young Breyer how to use his ears. "The importance of listening to people you don't agree with. It's corny and trite, but true," he said.
Alums also say they learned from Kennedy's determination to go the distance on an issue. "The perfect is the enemy of the good," Feinberg said. "He always takes the long view -- 'Let's get half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf; they'll be back.' " They also laud his willingness to share credit to get things done.
The senator is famous for demanding foresight from his staff. "Always anticipate the worst-case scenario and work back from it," said Elaine Shocas, president of Madeleine Albright Inc. She keeps a deactivated Angolan land mine on her desk to remind her: "Always watch where you're stepping."
Nancy Soderberg, who handled foreign policy for Kennedy from 1985 to 1992, once asked her boss if he ever got sick of his job. Never, he replied. Kennedy looked at his work as being like a "river, and it's fundamentally going one way or the other," she said. "I joked he made it go left."
Former staffers share a fierce loyalty to the senator. They're reluctant to talk out of school about events that transpired even decades ago. Those familiar with the condition of his health remain publicly silent. The reason is simple: Kennedy cares about them and they're returning the favor. The senator often sends cards when someone falls ill, or gives presents to office newborns, and he has shown up unannounced at staffers' weddings. He does the same for his alums.
"Once you've worked for Kennedy," Soderberg said, "you're part of a family for the rest of your life."
This article appears in the Jan. 10, 2009, edition of National Journal.