Kennedy Memoir Recalls Chummy Senate

Posted September 14, 2009 at 6:38pm

At the end of his storied four-decade career in Washington, D.C., the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was increasingly troubled by what he viewed as corrupting influences on the Senate and the collapse of the chamber’s sense of community and purpose.

In “True Compass,— a memoir released Monday by publisher Twelve, Kennedy provides an intimate view not only of his personal life and work as a lawmaker, but also of the way he views the Senate and how those around him helped shape his career.

Kennedy laments the collapse of the Senate community, which began in the 1970s. Until the early 1970s, lawmakers would spend most weekends in Washington, and a sense of camaraderie would develop. Often, Kennedy noted, lawmakers would picnic with their families outside of the Senate — even when the chamber was in session.

These personal connections helped make the work of legislative compromise easier, Kennedy argued, even in the late ’60s and early ’70s when Congress was grappling with the Vietnam War.

This constant work under extreme pressure gave the Senate a real sense of community. “We were in session a good number of evenings, so everyone stayed around through the week. I can remember having my children at the office. Many senators did. … This camaraderie in the midst of hard work helped senators to listen to one another, and sometimes even to take action on matters they might have otherwise avoided,— Kennedy wrote.

“That’s missing today. Now the Senate is basically in session from Tuesday through Thursday. Colleagues ‘speak’ to each other via blackberry and telephone. This loss of face-to-face interaction certainly isn’t unique to the Senate, but I do think it’s a loss,— Kennedy explained. In addition, the explosion in the size of the Congressional staff workforce has also marked a potentially dangerous shift in how the chamber operates.

“95 percent of the nitty-gritty work of drafting and even negotiating is now done by staff. That alone marks an enormous shift of responsibility. … And we couldn’t tackle the myriad issues without their essential work. But we walk a fine line. As senators, we need to be vigilant we don’t lose track of the whole essence of what the Senate is; of what our involvement signifies; of our relationship with people; and of what all of that should lead to, which is the unfettered and vital exchange of ideas,— Kennedy wrote.

These changes have led to the “withering away of collegiality and sense of collective mission as the corruption of the Senate. I don’t mean corruption in a legal sense; rather, I mean corruption in the sense that things are broken,— Kennedy lamented.

Kennedy argued in the book that two forces are at work helping drive this corruption — those who “actually do not want the Senate to meet— in order to keep legislation from being implemented and the “distorted influence of money and the power of vested interests in the legislative process.—

Significantly, Kennedy spends little time in “True Compass— writing about his colleagues in the Senate, although he does single out a number of lawmakers. For instance, Kennedy recalled his decision to run against Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) for Assistant Majority Leader in 1969 and lauds Long’s ability as a legislator and leader.

“I liked Russell. … He differed in his politics from me; but his racial views were far more moderate than those of his southern colleagues,— Kennedy wrote, noting a particular style of talking with his colleagues that Kennedy would eventually take on during his career.

“He also knew how to get things done. He had perfected a trick of persuasion that reminded me of Lyndon Johnson: he would lean into you during a discussion, bringing his face in close to yours and draping a heavy arm around your shoulder, pulling you to him against your will.—

Of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Kennedy said that on meeting him 1971 he “was impressed by the forcefulness of this young man with the long, serious face and the great mop of dark hair as he articulated the case against the war, and also by his record of courage in combat. … I have enormous respect for John Kerry. He is not only my colleague; he is my friend.—

Despite a reputation for magnanimity, Kennedy also clearly comes across as having been able to hold a grudge with the best of them. For instance, Kennedy paints former President Jimmy Carter as a shallow, petty politician.

“Clearly, President Carter was a difficult man to convince — of anything. One reason for this was that he did not really listen. He loved the appearance of listening,— Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also faulted Carter for using summertime “colloquies— at the White House not only to remind guests that the Carter family did not drink, but also to demonstrate his grasp of policy minutiae. “The first thing you would be reminded of, in case you needed reminding, was that he and Rosalynn had removed all the liquor in the White House,— Kennedy said.

Of the actual events hosted by Carter, Kennedy’s description makes them appear almost as tedious seminars, so buried in the details of a topic as to be no longer useful. “For the next three hours Jimmy Carter would conduct a seminar: on Africa, for instance. He would let you know that he knew every country in Africa and the name of every president of every country in Africa. … They were informational — you could say they were nothing if not informational. But they were so broad-gauged as to not be of much specific importance. They were personal tours de force, and every one of my colleagues recognized them as such, designed to impress us that the president knew so much minutiae.—

Kennedy also accused Carter of acting with “timidity— on health care. “True Compass— says the Carter administration never appeared interested in moving broad reforms and describes an hourlong meeting with Carter in which the president refused to appoint Watergate figure Archibald Cox to the federal court because Cox had backed Morris Udall for the 1976 Democratic nomination. Carter “said he could never, ever support Archibald Cox … because Cox had supported Morris Udall. … His words had a certain ring that I have always remembered. It seemed as though Carter were experiencing real pleasure in telling that he was not going to support Archibald Cox,— Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also makes note of the fact that several of his high-profile supporters abandoned him during his ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, including Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and New York Gov. Hugh Carey (D), all of whom had urged him to run.

“At Eunice’s Special Olympics in New York State, Pat Moynihan had made a big point of pulling me over and saying I had to run. He’d said he’d do anything for me. In a New York meeting, Hugh Carey has said the same thing: I had to run. He’d do anything for me. But once my campaign got started, I never heard from either of them again,— Kennedy said, adding of Rostenkowski that, “At a gathering of Democratic congressional leaders at the White House, I spotted Rostenkowski. It seemed that he was avoiding me. I called him up the next day, but I couldn’t get him. Four days later, he announced for Carter, who had pushed through funding for Chicago’s transit system.—

Kennedy was clearly not impressed with President Ronald Reagan. In fact, he said Reagan “failed to meet the ultimate criteria of greatness— and recounted a number of instances in which Reagan seemed to either be purposefully disengaged from the serious work being done around him or simply clueless.

However, Kennedy said that despite their political differences, “I cannot help affirming that Ronald Reagan deserves his special niche in the minds of the American people. As an optimist myself, I admire optimists. He made people feel upbeat about the country, a welcome mood shift from the Carter era.—