The deal-maker

Ted Kennedy knew how to reach across the aisle in the U.S. Senate and get things done

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The Gazette, Sunday, August 30, 2009

A line in a speech to the 1980 Democratic convention became the coda of Ted Kennedy's career. Ending his bid to wrest the nomination from Jimmy Carter, a sitting president of his own party, Kennedy famously declared: "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die." One of his campaign slogans said it all: "To sail against the wind." But in the U.S. Senate, where he served for nearly 47 years until his death this week, he also learned how to tack. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Kennedy "introduced 2,500 bills and saw more than 550 of them enacted into law." Which meant that while he was the liberal lion of the Senate, he knew how to reach across the aisle, to forge bi-partisan consensus on issues such as voting rights, disabled persons, education for minorities and, the cause of his life, universal health care. From Meals on Wheels to No Child Left Behind, he championed any cause that improved the quality of life in America. Though he was all too human, his qualities far outnumbered his faults, and the people knew this, and were grateful for his lifetime of service to his country.

This is why they stood by the thousands in the streets of Boston, applauding the hearse bearing his flag-draped coffin to the John F. Kennedy Library on Columbia Point. This why they stood quietly by the thousands outside his funeral service yesterday, and later visited his grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried beside his brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

The role in which he was cast, that of survivor, was not one he could ever renounce. But in time he emerged from the shadows of their legend to create his own aura as the consummate brokerage politician of his time. Jack Kennedy was a rhetorical leader, Bobby Kennedy was a polarizing figure, Ted Kennedy was a legislative deal-maker. Sure, he knew how to make a speech, but what he really knew was how to make a deal.

The youngest of a boisterous brood, he became the patriarch of a dynastic clan. And unlike his nephew John, as he said at his funeral, Ted Kennedy lived "to comb grey from his hair." And how he had friends, in all political precincts, and all corners of the political world. One of his best friends was former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who shared a lot of moments and much laughter over a friendship of the last quarter century.

"The last time I spoke to him was a couple of weeks ago," Mulroney was saying the other day. "He sounded good. He had had actually just been out sailing, and so he was in a very good mood." But for the wedding of his son Mark in Switzerland this weekend, Mulroney would have been among the foreign dignitaries at Kennedy's funeral.

"He was a great man," Mulroney continued. "Teddy was never petty. He was a strong liberal partisan. But I never heard him say a negative word about anyone. He had no malice in him. I consider it a privilege to have known him so well." Well enough that Kennedy, at Mulroney's behest, once came to Montreal in the mid-1990s to launch a fundraiser for the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Well enough that Kennedy invited the Mulroneys for a weekend at Hyannis Port in 1994, where the senator had his guests sleep in President Kennedy's bedroom. Well enough that Kennedy gave the occasional dinner party for his Canadian friends in Washington.

As Mulroney pointed out in a television interview, Ted Kennedy knew Canada well. He knew the players, he knew the issues, he knew the geography. "He once told the story of driving his mother Rose for a ski holiday at Mont Tremblant," Mulroney recalled.

More than once, Kennedy asked what he could do help Mulroney out. When Mulroney spoke at the JFK Library in 1989, Kennedy praised his political courage in taking the case for Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement to the voters in the 1988 election. In 1992, Kennedy also introduced Mulroney to an audience at Harvard. A few days before that event, I got a call at the Canadian Embassy from a member of his staff who kept a close eye on Canadian issues. "What," she began, "would you like my guy to say about your guy?" This is known as the unsolicited third-party endorsement, and it is worth its political weight in gold. "Whatever he thinks is appropriate," I replied.

Quite on his own, Kennedy again referred to free trade, and the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, as Mulroney's "profile in courage." Mulroney nearly fell off his chair, and so did the Canadian reporters who were covering the event.

Kennedy was also fascinated by the dynamics of Canadian party politics.

"What's a Progressive Conservative?" he once asked Mulroney.

"Your nephew, Arnold Schwarzenegger," Mulroney replied, naming the liberal Republican governor of California, "he would be a progressive conservative." "Right," Kennedy said. "Got it." There wasn't much that he didn't get in the great game and on the great stage of politics. It is a great man who goes to his rest.

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