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Kennedy: Ifs, Ands, and Buts

At 10:45 the morning of June 4, Sen, Edward M. Kennedy's appearance at the back of the Fontainebleau Hotel ballroom set off a wave of excitement among the 1600 delegates to the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union annual convention. He had arrived in Miami Beach three hours earlier, having flown all night across the country from a day in Seattle at the national governors' conference. He looked fresh. He had had a quick ocean swim, a breakfast meeting with friends among the ILGWU leadership, a closed-door meeting with liberal critics of his health bill compromise. Now the cheers and flashbulbs followed him down the center aisle and up to the TV-lighted stage. It was a scene worth remembering, for it will be repeated dozens of times this fall as Kennedy--if his current plans hold up--campaigns extensively throughout the country for Democratic House and Senate candidates. With George Wallace confined to a wheelchair, Kennedy has no peer today as a magnetic campaign orator.

The introduction trembled with the emotion of the now glamorous past. The invocation of the names of his brothers was as telling as the enormous "Impeach Nixon" banner hanging from a side wall, A shudder ran through the crowd as the assassinations were recalled and the cry heard that such things can "never happen again." Then, with appropriate reference to Edward Kennedy's 12-year record of Senate accomplishments, he was brought on as the heir. Elderly women wiped tears from their eyes, union local placards waved. By the time the senator had droned out his appreciation for the introduction and acknowledged the other union officers, the glaze that had come over his face when his brothers were mentioned had gone. Without pause he launched into the handful of brief jokes that" mark the start of all his speeches. One was on a favorite theme: his presidential aspirations. "I have always dreamed of addressing a major national convention here in Miami," he began mock seriously, "and even though this is the wrong year and the wrong convention, I am delighted to be here."

Prepared Kennedy speeches have a primary thrust. For the ILGWU it was the economy and the points were hammered home with shouted punch lines bringing on roars of approval. Thoughts suggested over breakfast found their way into asides, and the standard themes--health care, campaign fund and income tax reform, detente with the Soviets--led up to a closing call for a restoration of faith in government and a "vision" for the future. For almost 10 minutes cheers and stamping rose with each Kennedy wave of acknowledgment. Aged David Dubinsky, originally seated in the audience, moved up on stage and, unnoticed, sat behind the speaker, listening to the tumult, a faint smile on his lips as he waited to shake Kennedy's hand.

Thirty minutes later Kennedy was at it again, this time before the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union. The speech was shorter, crisper, some lines that didn't work earlier were dropped, new material added. The audience was smaller, somewhat less warm but still moved by the delivery. Again he was mobbed by young and old as he headed for his car and the plane back to Washington.

Almost unbroken enthusiasm has greeted most of Kennedy's discreetly selected public appearances over the past few months. Such receptions, his closest aides and supporters have convinced themselves, put the lie to talk that in the wake of Watergate, the Chappaquiddick episode looms large in- the public mind. They seem to see Chappaquiddick as a public relations obstacle--it keeps being raised by newsmen during the handful of carefully spaced national television interviews--but not as barring the way to the presidency. The senator, apparently, sees it the same way.

Kennedy has said he will decide by the fall of 1975 whether he will run. In preparation he is trying to put himself so far out in front of the pack that if his answer is yes, the nomination will be his without a fight. Already the polls mark him as the unchallenged favorite among registered Democrats. His campaigning for Democrats this fall can only add to that margin. Requests for him to appear top those received by all other Democrats, Henry Jackson and Walter Mondale have already conceded the inevitability of Kennedy's nomination if he decides he wants it. Kennedy enjoys teasing the press and the public about his intentions. In the midst of the ILGWU speech he thanked the unionfor standing by the Kennedys in the past and added, "I hope you will be behind me in the future as we face new challenges," The delegates shouted their assent, after which Kennedy laughingly added, "It wasn't supposed to come out quite that way." It comes out that way too often not to be planned.

But since a successful courtship never guarantees a happy marriage, running for the presidency and winning is not the only or even surest indicator of performance once in office. There has been a naive belief that limited men, once they get to the top, rise to the demands made on them. Richard Nixon, thanks to Watergate, has exploded that nonsense. Ted Kennedy wants the job, that's certain. Last May in an interview over public television, he was asked by reporter Paul Duke: "Would you, deep down, like to be President?" "Yes," was the response. It caught Duke by surprise, but he recovered and asked "why?" Kennedy started off by saying, "Well, I think the capacity and the ability to bring about the kind of changes that I think are important for the country I think can be most effectively done there. I mean I've seen it in terms of President Kennedy. And I saw its possibilities in the relationship to Robert Kennedy." Then before he frankly began to discuss how he saw the office, Kennedy withdrew to his I-have-not-yet-decided-to-run position and began rambling--as he does when he knows he's avoiding a question--about his work in the Senate.

Four of our last five Presidents came from the Senate. It provides the publicity platform deemed needed, though it is a less than adequate training school for those who move on up. Most senators make a habit of avoiding tough decisions. They can propose solutions without having to implement them. They frequently deal in the shadows: trading votes, doing the grubby political work necessary to pass legislation. Most of what they do is not covered by the press. The harsh spotlight is hardly ever on senators except during electionyears. Perhaps most debilitating of all, legislators see firsthand the weaknesses in the congressional system itself. It is not by chance that Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, each a product of the Congress, took as much power from their former colleagues as they could get and generally held Congress in contempt. Kennedy likes the Senate, however, and has done well playing by its rules. His ability to command a national press and the prospect that someday he will be President has helped him immensely.

As with his brothers before him, Kennedy believes in a strong staff and has attracted a flow of intelligent, aggressive aides. He knows how to use them, and they quickly adapt to his ways. The chief form of communication is the memo--usually short, a page or two, carrying with it some background and a suggested course of action. There is no internal filtering process and the system is open to outsiders, many of whom regularly pass things on to Kennedy because he is a Kennedy. On a recent: Saturday flight back from a Massachusetts speech, the senator plowed through a four-inch folder of memos that had piled up during previous days. They ranged from proposals on how to dealwith an amendment on the Senate floor (including an analysis of who would carry the ball if he didn't and how that would be seen in the media), to a general paper that got him thinking about what could be done about the failures of the volunteer army. Memos draw written responses if needed. More likely they spark questions from Kennedy to the author.

The man is more a talker than a reader. His staff is trained to come up with new ideas and new writings that might interest him, or in which they think he should be interested. They master the material; they also organize breakfasts, lunches or dinners around people or subjects. Senate hearings perform the same function. If the topic interests Kennedy, or the witness is particularly impressive, the facts stick in his mind long after the session is over.

While he is an excellent questioner, Kennedy has no fixed sense of where he as a person or this country under his or someone else's leadership ought to be going. Priorities are what you get from experts, then sort out for yourself. A disastrous Cambridge meeting earlier this year showed the limits of that approach. John Kenneth Galbraith brought together a group at Kennedy's behest to talk about priorities for the 1970s. It bogged down as guests argued among themselves over the future of the economy. When the tables were turned and questions asked of Kennedy, the meeting fell apart. A number of academics left with a critical view of Kennedy's intellectual competence. Fearful that Nelson Rockefeller's commission has sewn up the new idea market, Kennedy supporters are trying to put together some comparable source for their man.

Jerry-built as the idea machine may be, those ideas that are pumped into and around Kennedy's office more often than not do lead to some action. In the past few years Kennedy has engaged himself in more issues than any of his colleagues--Supreme Court nominations,campaign fund reform, invasion of privacy, voter registration, the draft, the anti-ABM fight, Vietnam and Southeast Asian refugees, health legislation and now tax reform.

Comprehensive health insurance gives some illustration of how Kennedy operates. It began back in 1969-70 with some political decisions that frankly were inspired as much by the presidential race of 1972 as by the nation's health needs. A long-term issue was wanted that he could press and to which he could attach his name. He wanted something broad and classless that would help all the people, not the least those Nixon had identified in 1968 as the silent majority. Aid the working stiffs and then you can do more for the blacks and the poor, went Kennedy's argument--quite different from the one adopted by his brother Robert. Mary Lasker and Walter Reuther, who already had a health committee organized, got Ted Kennedy into this field. By 1971 he'd pulled his own staff together, interviewed doctors outside the Reuther committee and introduced a bill. In the intervening years some battles have been won, others lost. Health insurance has been more difficult to sell to the public than expected--the terms, for one thing, are too complicated. Furthermore inflation and a $40 billion price tag have set it back. By 1973 Kennedy was convinced he had to back down from his original proposal if he wanted to get something passed in the reasonably near future.

About that time Wilbur Mills was looking for a way to change his image. He was being threatened by the Richard Boiling House reorganization that wanted to get health insurance away from Mills' Ways and Means Committee. Mills and Kennedy, with outside assistance, put together a compromise health insurance bill that Kennedy is trying to sell to his original backers and that many union leaders are not buying. The new Kennedy-Mills bill is too much for the Nixon administration and more bargaining is going to be required if any measure is to pass, but Kennedy seems agreeable to that. He believes that compromise legislation would "set an irreversible course" toward the comprehensive plan he still supports.

What does this brief history tell us? He is willing to compromise. He sees a limit to legislative solutions but looks to laws as a means of lessening the weight of problems on people's lives. He believes you must do something for the many before you can do more for the underprivileged minorities. He has a healthy respect of congressional committee chairmen, perhaps more than they deserve. He tries to avoid making enemies.

Kennedy's recent trip to the Soviet Union was a planned, signal departure from his previous activity on the periphery of foreign policy. That decision, too, was politically motivated: a presidential candidate has to break into the big time on the world stage. For years Kennedy participated in the Vietnam debate, thanks in part to some imaginative use of the refugees subcommittee--which he chairs--of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sharp staff questioning, field trips to Southeast Asia and cleverly drafted amendments have marked this effort. Last fall, however, Kennedy wanted to move on up. He hired a full-time personal staff man to handle foreign policy matters. By January it was decided that Kennedy would accept a long-standing invitation to visit Moscow under the auspices of theSupreme Soviet parliamentary group. It was not to be just another senatorial trip. Kennedy made it a precondition of the trip that he would see Soviet Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev and one other among the top leadership. Also it was to be considered a working trip: there was to be one public speech, preferably at Moscow State University, a visit to Leningrad and one other city, and he intended to talk with Soviet Jews in Moscow.

It was also decided that Kennedy should not go only to the Soviet Union, for fear he would give the impression he looked at the world through a bilateral lens.' Arrangements were made to visit West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and to make stops in Romania and Yugoslavia on the way to Moscow. It took over a month to negotiate the schedule, and even then the Soviet draft was delivered only two days before his departure. Changes were suggested and the final version was not settled until he arrived in Moscow. In the final weeksbefore he left Kennedy talked with State Department officials and those involved in the arms control talks. He had already introduced a Senate resolution calling for a comprehensive underground nuclear test ban treaty and expected to discuss it in Moscow. He did not while there get out into areas covered by the SALT talks, so as to avoid appearing as a negotiator for the government.

While the briefings went on, the Kennedy staff was not unaware of the publicity benefits and political pitfalls of the trip. Before departure a date was set for Kennedy to appear upon his return before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (to which he brought his three sisters). The ouster of Alexander Solzhenitsyn from Russia hung as a threat over the expedition to Russia; one worry was that Henry Jackson would be with the exiled Russian author while Kennedy consorted with his former tormentors.

On the whole the trip is thought to have gone well. The Soviets treated Kennedy with extraordinary deference--using the occasion to take their measure of a possible President. Kennedy surprised many of the professional diplomats by listening to and taking advice, staying within the suggested bounds of discussion. As for the incident at Moscow University, the best that can be said is that both sides, Kennedy and the Soviets, knew it was coming. He was prepared before he left to be outspoken at that appearance and the Soviets, by filling the hall with selected students, were ready to counter him.

Kennedy got more from the visit than the obvious opportunity to talk to Americans about his meetings with Soviet leaders--which he regularly uses. He gained some insight into the Russian fear of war and a belief they sincerely want detente. His strong reaffirmation of a comprehensive test ban reflects impressions made on him in Moscow.

Most men in national politics have little, if any, private life. Their wives are domestic versions of the ever-present staff assistants; their children are usually display objects, like the pictures and diplomas in daddy's office. The Kennedys have followed this pattern--but with exceptions. Joseph Kennedy, the father, never escaped the whispered, then published notoriety surrounding his relationship with movie actress Gloria Swanson. Built upon myth and fact, the philandering of each of the Kennedy brothers has been the envy of more domesticated politicians and the joy of Washington gossips. The stories failed to damage the candidacies of either John or Robert Kennedy. They could damage Ted, though we live in a more permissive time. Joan Kennedy, unlike Jacqueline and Ethel Kennedy, has not been strong enough to establish her own identity or withstand the pressures of her life. She, too, has been through two assassinations, her husband's airplane accident, Chappaquiddick and now the tragic illness of their elder son. Her recent stay at an institution for persons with alcohol problems was just another reminder of Kennedy's domestic situation.

One might think that past tragedies and future uncertainties that so affect his wife must weigh more heavily on Kennedy himself. Surprisingly they have no visible effect on his public performance. There are times when inner anxieties come to the surface. When a plane speeds down the runway to take off, Kennedy abruptly halts the conversation to watch the ground fade safely away. As a front-seat passenger in a car rushing through evening freeway traffic during a rainstorm, he turns all the way around to talk to th6 back seat passengers, thus avoiding what's going on ahead. But the day his wife's presence at the sanitarium was disclosed, Kennedy flew to Boston, in a car ride to Bridgewater State Teachers' College talked about life, d^eath and accidents, m?de an excellent, sometimes moving graduation speech, and carried on an interview on health care all the way back to the airport. Never once did the strain show. He has become cold, even callous about his personal past interfering with the present.

There are unplanned moments when a politician's private life and public responsibilities merge. Five years ago after the Chappaquiddick accident when Kennedy and his friends had unsuccessfully tried everything but calling in the authorities to find Mary Jo Kopechne, they stopped thinking about her and began to work on his problem of political survival. The carefully crafted stories of what had happened, the television appearance and the statement all bore the mark, not of candor nor even "a jumble of emotions" that accompanied the event itself, but rather of calculated public relations. The original handling of Chappaquiddick showed a basic disregard for exposing the whole truth. Thanks to an indifferent or forgiving public, the strategy has been, temporarily at least, successful, and today Kennedy and his aides believe they can overcome Chappaquiddick by discussing other more important topics. In this they compound their original error of judgment. They fail to appreciate the deep and destructive erosion of public confidence in government and politicians caused by the Chappaquiddicks and Watergates. They are wrong to think the erosion can be reversed by a Kennedy presidential victory achieved by "stonewalling" the Chappaquiddick incident.

There are many concerned Democrats outside the Kennedy circle who believe the party could fail in 1976 without his candidacy. They and others sought out by Kennedy in recent months have told him what, in part, he wants to hear: the raising of Chappaquiddick will be an effort by his enemies and the press to "get him." Now, the news media will almost certainly resurrect the entire event: the car's route will be traced, the "boiler-room girls" tracked down and reinterviewed, Edgartown Police Chief Arena and District Attorney Dinis will be back in the news, the Kopechne parents will be questioned over and over again. The aggressiveness of the press will be stimulated in part by its desire to appear impartial, to show the same, sometimes irresponsible, doggedness that went into attacks on President Nixon and former Vice President Agnew. Like Nixon and Agnew (and now Kissinger), Kennedy may convince himself he is being unfairly criticized, and in part that will be true. But the media will also be responding to what it perceives as a post-Watergate standard for public morality. Kennedy's failure to understand that--or perhaps his refusal to--raises a basic question in my mind as to his qualification for the presidency.

In his 1960 speech on the presidency John Kennedy said the White House was "the center of moral leadership," recalling Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address: "In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory." We are at that same point now, and the desire for integrity and candor is perhaps greater because its absence has been the basic failure of the Nixon administration.

The choice for Ted Kennedy in the fall of next year is not between running for the presidency or quitting political life. His brother at 43 was our youngest elected President (Theodore Roosevelt became President at 42 upon the death of McKinley). Ted Kennedy would be only 44 in 1976, and the opportunity to run at some future date would still be his. His support of another candidate--which must be part of a not-to-run statement thereby foreclosing a draft--would all but assure that person's nomination. The national leadership Kennedy wants would not be lost should he decide to stay in the Senate. He could try for the majority leader's post that Mike Mansfield is expected to vacate. From that position Kennedy could help reconstruct the prestige of the Congress--a task he knows needs to be undertaken. It has not been undertaken partly because senators who have failed in their campaigns for the presidency have never sought to reestablish themselves as national figures. They have slipped into relative obscurity; the national media stopped covering them. But that is something that Kennedy's presence could remedy.

Ted Kennedy is a politician with extraordinary gifts standing at a key crossroads in our history. He has had a personal life that would have crushed all but a few of us. He has, in his public life, gotten almost everything he sought--much of it deserved, some not. But a great deal more than his personal future rests on next year's decision.