Democrat Edward Kennedy has served for more than 46 years in the Senate, longer than all but two other senators in American history and enduring through nine American presidencies. The only senators who served longer are the late Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and incumbent Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. A master of legislative deal-making and the keeper of the flame of liberalism, Kennedy is considered one of the giants of the Senate, with a place in history more earned than bestowed on him by the famous Kennedy name. News in May 2008 that he was suffering from a malignant brain tumor was received with great sadness on both sides of the political aisle.
He has been a presidential candidate and, while still in his 30s, was widely assumed to be the next president. To many, his reputation as an idealistic champion of the poor is unassailable, and the nation has watched him cope impressively time and again with family tragedy. To others, he is a symbol of personal immorality and unpunished criminal behavior, a man who has gotten away with things that would have ended the public career of almost anyone else. There is some basis for both views, but neither is an entirely fair picture of a politician who was re-elected without much fuss in 2006, and who has done much over the years to set national policy on any number of issues. Kennedy himself has acknowledged his failings. "I've made mistakes. Certainly there are things I'm not proud of," he once said.
For most of America, the luster of the Kennedys in their heyday is increasingly a distant memory. Most Americans--including the current president--have no actual recollection of the years John F. Kennedy was president. But Edward Kennedy has remained a major political force. There was little in the early life of this youngest of the Kennedy siblings to suggest he would be so important a public figure, much less for so long. He grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., a rich and heavily Catholic suburb. He was thrown out of Harvard University for cheating on a Spanish exam. He went off to do a stint in the Army, and then returned to earn degrees at Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School. He married a Bronxville woman, Joan Bennett, who never developed a taste for politics. Then one of his older brothers was elected president of the United States, and the 28-year-old Edward was a national celebrity. The imperious family patriarch, Joe Kennedy, insisted that he run for the Senate seat just vacated by his brother. A college roommate of President Kennedy's was appointed by Democratic Gov. Foster Furcolo to hold the seat until Kennedy reached the constitutional age of 30 in 1962. His family money and the enthusiasm among Massachusetts Catholics enabled him to beat strong candidates with good political names: Attorney General Edward McCormack, nephew of House Speaker John McCormack, in the Democratic primary; George Cabot Lodge, son and great-grandson of senators, in the general election. "He can do more for Massachusetts" was his slogan, as it had been John Kennedy's in his first Senate race 10 years before. Two years later, his brother, Robert Kennedy, was elected senator from New York, regarded generally as a carpetbagger although he had grown up from age 2 in the state. Robert Kennedy ran for president and was murdered just after winning the California primary in June 1968.
After the assassinations of his two brothers, Edward Kennedy was seen by many as their natural heir, and he could have been nominated for president in 1968, at 36, or in 1972, had he chosen to run. But his career would never completely recover from the accident at Chappaquiddick in July 1969, in which a young woman riding with Kennedy was killed after he lost control of the car and it plunged into a pond. Kennedy escaped, but passenger Mary Jo Kopechne died in the car. He did not call police until after her body was found, behavior he later blamed on being disoriented from the crash. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month suspended jail sentence. His poll ratings dropped, and Kennedy became a polarizing figure. In 1972, he delivered the first of many stirring convention speeches promoting his trademark liberalism. In 1979, he did run for president, and began the race against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter far ahead in the polls. But he was unable to articulate his reasons for running, and his candidacy stirred adverse reactions to him personally, as well as to his policies.
It ended in a crushing defeat, relieved only by another stirring convention speech, after which he pointedly refused to raise Carter's hand on the podium in the traditional show of party unity. In retrospect, it is plain that Kennedy's presidential chances were ended by Chappaquiddick. But he has always been re-elected with solid margins in Massachusetts. His toughest competition was Mitt Romney, then a venture capitalist and later governor and presidential candidate, in the Republican year of 1994.
Kennedy has been a hardworking and practical politician who, after his brothers' deaths, took up liberal causes. He was elected Senate majority whip in 1967, but lost the post to Byrd in 1971. He worked hard for a quarter-century without friendly support from a Democratic administration, until the election of Bill Clinton. Among the laws that he played an important role in enacting were the National Teachers Corps; bilingual education; low-income heating assistance; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program; the Job Training Partnership Act; and the Americans With Disabilities Act. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1979-80 (his chief aide was a young lawyer named Stephen Breyer, now on the U.S. Supreme Court), he supported abortion rights and feminist groups with energy and enthusiasm. He immediately pounced on Judge Robert Bork's nomination in 1987, but played a lesser role in the Clarence Thomas hearings, which came shortly after an incident in which his nephew William Kennedy Smith was arrested and charged with rape in Palm Beach, Fla. It marked another low point in Kennedy's personal life. Divorced from Joan Kennedy, he had spent several years on the party circuit, where his sometimes ribald behavior made news. The Smith trial revealed that the young man had been out on the town with Kennedy the night of the alleged rape.
The decade of the 1990s marked a turnaround for Kennedy. He stopped drinking heavily and dating beautiful, glamorous women. Instead he married one in 1992, Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie, an attractive, divorced mother of two. That year, Kennedy supported Clinton for president and Clinton paid repeated homage to the Kennedy family. Legislatively, Kennedy was productive, though not as much as he wished. As chairman of what is now the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Kennedy supported the higher spending sought by teachers' unions. He worked to pass direct student loans, AmeriCorps, Goals 2000, and the School-to-Work Opportunity Act. He again sponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act, which Republican President George H. W. Bush had vetoed. It was the first law Clinton signed when he succeeded Bush as president. After Republicans won a Senate majority in 1994, Kennedy shifted his focus from expanding government to protecting it from being downsized. In 1996, he went on the offensive. He pushed to passage the Kassebaum-Kennedy health care bill, an incremental measure to provide portability of health insurance and to limit exclusions for pre-existing conditions. He also had a hand in the Children's Health Insurance Program, passed as part of a grand compromise between Clinton and the Republican leadership in 1997.
When Republican George W. Bush took office, he may have been from the other political party, but he was no stranger to Kennedy, who went back a long time with the Bush family. Kennedy had served in the Senate with Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, whose last term ended in January 1963. And Kennedy got on well with his father, President George H. W. Bush in 1989-93. The new president started off his term in early 2001 by inviting Kennedy to the White House frequently, once to view Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban missile crisis during John Kennedy's presidency. Kennedy also played a major role in producing Bush's first major bipartisan achievement, the No Child Left Behind education bill passed by the Senate in 2001 and signed in January 2002. This represented a change in course by Kennedy and by Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education panel.
They agreed to accept the accountability measures Bush sought, though they were opposed by the teachers' unions. The measures were designed especially to raise test scores among minority and disadvantaged pupils. When he bill came up for reauthorization in 2007, Kennedy again worked with the Bush administration. But this time, they did not reach agreement. The gulf between Democrats and Republicans on the level of funding necessary to pay for the law's mandates on school districts was too wide, and no bill was passed in 2008.
Kennedy broke with Bush in 2003 on the president's plan to create a prescription drug benefit in the Medicare program. Kennedy succeeded in getting a version to his liking through the Senate, but the House produced quite a different bill that largely prevailed in the conference committee. But he pursued other bipartisan causes--strengthening defenses against biological warfare with Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, Health Maintenance Organization regulation with Republican John McCain of Arizona, and hate crimes legislation with Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon. In 2005 and 2006, he worked closely with Gov. Romney, his 1994 opponent, on the universal health care program passed by the Massachusetts Legislature. Romney conceded that it would probably never have passed without Kennedy's involvement.
After the 2004 election, Kennedy was an increasingly sharp critic of the Bush administration, especially on the Iraq war, but continued to work on a bipartisan basis. He worked with conservative Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming on an electronic health records bill in 2005. He and McCain developed a version of the immigration bill, with a guest worker program as well as border security provisions, which passed the Senate in May 2006 but ultimately was not enacted. He pushed through an amendment to stop universities from running school-as-lender programs, from which they pocketed the proceeds, and pressed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to enforce it. On a local matter, he opposed the Cape Wind project to create a 130-turbine wind farm in the Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. He pushed for a bill that would allow governors to veto such projects, knowing that Romney was prepared to do so.
But on other issues, Kennedy has continued to issue clarion calls for liberalism. On the Judiciary Committee, he opposed Bush's nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. He pressed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on interrogation policies for unlawful combatant detainees. He voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002, while fellow Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry voted for it. Kennedy later called the case for the war "a fraud ... cooked up in Texas." By early 2004, his spirit of cooperation with the Bush administration was depleted. In April of that year, he said, "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam. This is the pattern and the record of the Bush administration [on] Iraq, jobs, Medicare, schools, issue after issue--mislead, deceive, make up the needed facts, smear the character of any critics. Again and again, we see this cynical, despicable strategy playing out." In January 2005, he presented a five-point plan for Iraqi self-government and a definite timetable for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.
After the 2006 elections, Kennedy became chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee for the third time. He focused on student loans, getting bills through the Senate in July 2007 to force lenders to take more risk, to streamline the financial aid process, and to raise the maximum Pell Grant from $4,500 to $5,100. He sponsored a bill to allow the Food and Drug Administration to approve generic versions of biologic drugs. And with Enzi, he shepherded to passage an FDA bill requiring more surveillance of drugs on the market. He also revived his bill for FDA regulation of tobacco. He introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Act to reverse a Supreme Court decision and extend the statute of limitations in job-discrimination cases. It was among the first pieces of legislation signed by newly elected President Barack Obama in January 2009. Kennedy also worked to pass a mental health parity act, which became law as part of the $700 billion bill to keep financial institutions afloat in October 2008.
In 2007, Kennedy once again took up the cudgel on immigration and introduced a comprehensive bill in May, with a guest-worker program, a path to legalization for illegal workers currently in the United States, and tougher enforcement provisions. With McCain on the campaign trail running for president, he worked with McCain's Arizona colleague Jon Kyl, a Republican. Kennedy joined Kyl in opposing amendments by liberals as "bill killers," but in June 2007 one such measure, which would sunset the guest-worker program, passed. Kennedy tried to salvage the legislation, but Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled it from the floor. Having failed to set a troop withdrawal deadline for Iraq, Kennedy took up the cause of Iraqis and Afghans adversely affected by the fighting. With Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, he sponsored a bill to vastly increase the number of special visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters. His amendment to authorize 5,000 visas annually for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government was included in the defense authorization in September 2007.
In May 2008, Kennedy was hospitalized in Boston and diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor with a "grim" prognosis. He underwent surgery in June at the Duke Medical Center to remove as much of the tumor as possible. He was absent from the Senate for most of the rest of the year, but returned in July 2008 to cast a decisive vote for cancelling the scheduled 10.6% cut in Medicare reimbursements for doctors. He left the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2008 after 46 years there.
Kennedy endorsed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president in 2008, and campaigned for him in many states during the primaries. Even after becoming ill, he traveled to Denver to the Democratic National Convention to give a brief speech for Obama. He also appeared at Obama's inauguration, but had a seizure at the lunch in the Capitol and had to be hospitalized overnight. Later, when Obama sent his health care bill to Congress, Kennedy was too ill to oversee the work of the HELP Committee. But he kept a hand in the legislation through his staff and through his stand-in as committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
Kennedy was re-elected with 73% of the vote in 2000 and with 69% of the vote in 2006. He carried all but two towns in Hampden County, losing those by a combined 69 votes. He cast his 15,000th vote in the Senate in September 2007, one of only two senators to do so. Two months later, he signed a contract to write his memoirs and spent many hours in interviews for an oral history.