Heard on the Hill

What It’s Like the Week Your Senator Dies

Former Ted Kennedy aides have an idea of what John McCain’s staff is going through

Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy died on the same day, nine years apart. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

It was both a week of mourning and a week of work for John McCain’s staff, who had things to plan and questions to field.

If anyone knew what they were going through, it was the aides of Ted Kennedy, another giant of the Senate who died in office — nine years to the day before his Arizonan friend.

Stephanie Cutter, a longtime senior adviser to Kennedy, was at his house on Cape Cod in August 2009 working on funeral arrangements.

“There was so much that still had to be done,” she said.

She flew back to Washington, and when she landed, Kennedy’s wife, Victoria, called to say that the senator might not make it through the night.

“He passed away later that evening, and I stayed up all night managing the announcement and then went straight to Boston to set up a war room at the Kennedy Library,” said Cutter, who left a job at the White House to lead the planning.

Dozens of Kennedy staffers used the “war room” to organize the funeral in 48 hours, she said.

“I didn’t sleep for five days, so it didn’t really hit me that he was gone until it was time to begin the procession to the church from the library,” she said. “Kennedy staff took turns keeping a 24-hour vigil as he lay in state at the library, and I was so busy planning that I had never taken a turn, and I was just devastated.”

Kennedy’s legacy is what kept her going during the sleepless week.

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“I was lucky to be with the Kennedy team, who were really like family to me, and to the senator and Vicki. I think we wanted to make him proud, and that kept us all going,” she said.

Kennedy’s communications director at the time, Anthony Coley, described an emotional whirlwind.

“It was a tough period, your emotions are everywhere, and there was a lot of incoming. But we all rallied — current and former staff and friends with the guidance of the family — to pull together multiple days of events in way that we hoped would make Sen. Kennedy proud,” he said.

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Coley came out of the process inspired, honored and humbled.

“Personally, the entire period was profoundly inspiring. His legacy and drive and work with his colleagues, including Sen. McCain, over five decades came alive in ways that I didn’t expect,” he said. “I came away from that period even more honored and humbled to have had the privilege to work for one of the last true lions of the Senate.”

Michael Myers had worked for Kennedy for 23 years at the time of his death.

“Even though we knew that Sen. Kennedy’s passing was imminent, the news of his death was still sharp and deeply painful,” said Myers, who was staff director and chief counsel on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Kennedy was chairman of the committee when he died of glioblastoma, the same aggressive brain cancer that felled McCain.

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“In a way, the busy task of helping with complex funeral arrangements was a welcome respite from our grief. It also helped keep our minds off the somber task ahead — that of closing down his office after 47 years of memories in the Russell Building,” Myers said.

Robert Shrum, a political consultant to Kennedy at the time of his death, agreed that planning was a way he saw his staffers coping with the death.

“I think the therapy for people’s sense of loss was really working very hard on the funeral,” Shrum said.

He had worked in Kennedy’s Senate office from 1980 to 1984.

“The office was deeply organized in organizing the funeral and sending out the invitations and making arrangements,” he said.

This August, it was McCain’s staff who had a job to do. And they had help from the “maverick” himself, whose careful advance planning popped up everywhere this week — from his farewell statement to remembrances in Arizona to the guest list at his funeral.

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