Memories Adjacent to Ted Kennedy

I never met Senator Ted Kennedy, though my political life has often run close to him and his work.

Last year, when I was working in Alaska for Mark Begich’s Senate campaign, there was a lot of talk about the Kennedy family and the state’s history in presidential elections. John F. Kennedy was the last and only Democratic presidential candidate to campaign for president in Alaska, though he lost the state to Nixon in 1960. Part of the lore I heard about the Kennedy family in Alaska was that Teddy had given the keynote at the Alaska Democratic Convention the night of the California primary in 1968. Upon finishing his speech, I’ve heard, he was told that his brother Robert had been shot. I’d never check until now, but this story isn’t actually true. Ted was in San Francisco speaking on his brother’s behalf the night RFK was murdered in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Ted Kennedy was in Alaska in 1968 and was indeed filling in for his brother Robert, but it was a speech at the Alaska Democratic Party Convention in Sitka on April 17th on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. You can download a digital version of this speech from Alaska’s Digital Archives.

It seems that I was told a history of Ted’s time in Alaska that merges two stories from that spring of 1968, though the convergence of his talk on Dr. King’s assassination and his brother’s assassination weeks later is powerful.

But my strongest connection to Senator Kennedy is through my work for his dear friend, Senator Chris Dodd. I worked on Senator Dodd’s presidential campaign and had the privilege of traveling with him on essentially all of his political trips during 2007 and early 2008. A constant from my travel’s with Senator Dodd were his regular calls with Senator Kennedy.  As Dodd traveled Iowa, New Hampshire and many points in between, it was common for Teddy to call and check in on how he was doing, how life on the campaign trail was treating him. Often Dodd would leave the stage for a speech and when we returned to the car to drive to the next event, he would pull out his cell phone to find a missed call and a voicemail from Teddy. As we’d pull out onto the road, Dodd would call Kennedy back and give him a rundown on the event, on the nature of the crowd and how he was holding up on long, grueling trips through the Iowa heat.

But the times that were most special were when Dodd would get a call from Senator Kennedy  at a free moment, when he could answer the phone and talk to his dear friend. Often Teddy would update Dodd on his time on his boat with his wife Vicki. Once I recall Senator Kennedy calling Dodd to gush with pride about winning a sailing race over the weekend, beating a bunch of young whipper-snappers with style and grace. Dodd’s face would light up while talking with Kennedy and on a tough campaign, they were moments when it was clear how happy he was to hear the voice from a close friend.

I always had real regrets that Senator Kennedy never stepped up and endorsed Senator Dodd for president, especially once it was clear that Teddy would almost certainly get to make another endorsement after Dodd ended his campaign. Many members of the Kennedy family endorsed Senator Dodd; in fact, without the fire fighters and the Kennedy family, I doubt the Dodd campaign would have made it as far as we did.  But Teddy never did and I can’t imagine how that may have hurt Senator Dodd. If it did, he never showed it to his staff — and so people like me who worked for Dodd briefly bore a grudge that our boss would not.

My most fond memory overlooking the friendship between Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy came on December 17, 2007. It was in the midst of the FISA fight and at a time when Dodd had just effectively blocked progress on the legislation that would dramatically undermine the rule of law in America. That night, Countdown with Keith Olbermann had aired back to back clips of Senator Kennedy and Senator Dodd charging hard to defend civil liberties on the floor of the Senate.

Democratic presidential candidates oppose immunity, but when the FISA debate began today, only one had left Iowa to fight the battle in Washington.  Senator Chris Dodd vowed to filibuster as long as he could to block the immunity provision from the overall FISA bill which is intended to bring the government‘s electronic eavesdropping within shouting distance of constitutionality.  Despite the absence of other candidates, Dodd did get help on the floor today.


SENATOR EDWARD M. KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  The president said that American lives will be sacrificed if congress does not change FISA.   But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity.  No immunity, no FISA bill.  So if we take the president at  his word, he‘s willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.

SENATOR CHRISTOPHER J. DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Don‘t tell me the legal departments of AT&T and Verizon didn‘t know what the law was.  Of course, they knew what the law was.  To suggest that, somehow, first year law students are pro bono operation here advising them is, of course, phony on its face.  They knew exactly what the law was, as the Qwest company did when they said, “No, give me a court order, and I‘ll comply.”

After Dodd’s intense day on the Senate floor, I came to his house to record a brief message from the Senator to the netroots community that had stood with Dodd against retroactive immunity for telecommunications  companies that helped the Bush administration illegally spy on Americans. As I entered the house I could see Dodd talking on the phone, laughing and smiling. He was talking to his dear friend Teddy and the two of them were complimenting each other on their great speeches on the floor of the Senate. Both got a big kick out of appearing in back-to-back clips on Countdown. It was an incredible moment and a remarkable thing to witness. Elected officials aren’t elected to become friends – they’re there to do the business of helping the country become a better place. But in the case of Dodd and Kennedy, two men who worked together in the Senate for more than three decades, their friendship came together through hard work towards common goals.

Senator Dodd’s statement on Senator Kennedy’s death is heartfelt and powerful:

“I’m not sure America has ever had a greater Senator, but I know for certain that no one has had a greater friend than I and so many others did in Ted Kennedy.

“I will always remember Teddy as the ultimate example for all of us who seek to serve, a hero for those Americans in the shadow of life who so desperately needed one.

“He worked tirelessly to lift Americans out of poverty, advance the cause of civil rights, and provide opportunity to all. He fought to the very end for the cause of his life – ensuring that all Americans have the health care they need.

“The commitment to build a stronger and fairer America, a more perfect union, was deeply ingrained in the fiber of who he was, and what he believed in, and why he served.

“That’s why he stands among the most respected Senators in history. But it was his sympathetic ear, his razor wit, and his booming, raucous laugh that made him among the most beloved.

“Whatever tragedy befell Teddy’s family, he would always be there for them. Whatever tragedy befell the family of one of his friends, he would always be there for us. And in this moment of profound grief, our hearts are with his wonderful wife Vicki, his fantastic kids Ted Jr., Patrick, Kara, Curran, and Caroline, his grandchildren, and the wide and wonderful extended family for whom he was always a safe harbor.

“I will miss him every day I serve, and every day I live.”

It’s the last line that hits me so hard, because I know that it is true. My heart goes out to Senator Kennedy’s family and our common friend, Senator Chris Dodd.

There will be many, many eulogies and shared memories of Senator Kennedy today. His record is simply too long and too accomplished to adequately summarize, so I won’t bother to try. Our country has last a real hero, a patriot and unequaled civil servant. His presence in the Senate and his character as a leader will be sorely missed.

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