Setting the Record Straight

May 21, 2008


Filed under: news,politics — straightrecord @ 3:40 am
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A Reporter’s View:

Ted Kennedy: Maturation of a Senator

         The news that Ted Kennedy has a fatal malignant brain tumor is about to lead to a flood of eulogies about the man. He has been a Massachusetts senator since 1962. While none of the contributors to this site ( has covered Washington, much less Congress, quite that long, many of our reporting careers overlap his career.
          Here are some personal notes from one of us. 
          I have been concerned about Kennedy’s health for many years. He has been overweight to the point of obesity for more than a decade and barely able to take a breath.
          Quite often, Kennedy was one of several senators participating in a news conference about one thing or another. Invariably, he would take his turn at the lectern and then practically waddle over to the nearest seat. That usually meant he took a seat behind reporters sitting in the front row and several times that put him beside me. He would fall into the seat with a powerful sigh. He may not have remembered my name, but he recognized me as a regular of many decades, so he’d give me a friendly poke on the leg and as much of a smile he could muster between wheezes. My instinct was to nod and leave him alone as he caught his breath, but I usually wondered if he would survive the day.
          Reporters do form personal opinions about the people they cover. Readers never know what are the opinions of good reporters, because those opinions are never reflected in the news story. But we do judge people according to many criteria.
          In the early 70s, most of us correctly judged Kennedy as a light-weight. He gave little effort to being informed on the issues and relied heavily on his staff. His staff usually was the best in Congress because the Kennedy name attracted some of the best legislative and issue practitioners. Even then, Kennedy was a liberal, as is the rest of the Kennedy clan, yes even the wife of California’s celebrity governor.
          But, except for giving speeches, Kennedy was not good at his job. As reporters seeking information, we seek out the person who knows the answers and we hope that is the person in charge, the person holding the office. In Kennedy’s case in those years, it was not he, it as a staffer.
          Sitting down for a one-on-one interview with Kennedy or trying to get some substantive comments from him in a hallway or on the run used to be almost fruitless, except to get a quote from the man himself to put in the story. Sitting in his office, he would be surrounded by staffers whom he depended on to answer the questions put to him. Rarely would any of us even try to hold an in-depth discussion directly with him on the issues. He did not have a grasp of details. He was shallow.
          He was elected majority whip of the Senate in 1969 (the same year as the Chappaquiddick incident that will dog him to his grave, and he predictably was a failure at the job. The whip job requires a great deal of effort, making sure members of your party not only know how the majority leader wants them to vote, but knowing if the majority has the votes, including any from the minority, to pass an amendment of legislation. He clearly was not up to the job and was kicked out of it two years later.
          But over the years, we saw him mature and grow into the job. As he moved from subcommittee to committee chairmanships, he became more serious about the job as senator. He appeared to change after the fateful interview with Roger Mudd of CBS when he finally succumbed and entered the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 1979.
          Mudd, one of the few television network reporters who actually worked at the journalistic part of his job, was a jovial sort and not the type to ask a “gotcha question.” When he asked Kennedy in a one-on-one special interview why he wanted to be president, it was a softball question to get the interview started and set the stage for substantive questions to follow. Most of us begin an interview that way to soften up the interviewee. The toughest questions are saved until the end of the interview, in case the interviewee turns hostile and refuses to cooperate further.
          Other than running for president just because he was a Kennedy and could do so seriously, Ted Kennedy had no clue why he wanted to be president and stumbled through his answer, looking a lot like the current president.
          Whereas these days looking like a fool in an interview does not rule you out as a president, in those days it still did. His candidacy was over as quickly as it began. The same year, Kennedy became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee simply because the job went, and still does, to the person who has been on the committee the longest.
          It is not clear whether the shock of coming off shallow in the pres- idential campaign or the huge responsibility in becoming chairman of what was then an almost-critical committee of Congress did the job, but Kennedy began to become a knowledgeable member of the Senate, well-versed in the issues before him and someone a reporter could question without having to rely on the senator’s staffers for informative answers.
          Sadly, that maturity began nearly two decades after he was first elected, but his longevity in the office has allowed him to emerge not only as one of the most liberal members of Congress, but one who can safely dare to claim the title “liberal.” Lately, it seems the more his fel- low liberals hide behind other labels and waffle on the issues, the more strident he becomes in speaking out for the cause.
          As the mantle of “statesman” is rarely worn in Congress these days, after Kennedy so will those strong enough to admit to being “liberal” be rare.




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