Clarence Page: Kennedy gift: Friendly politicsPublished 11:03am Wednesday, September 2, 2009
This was shortly after the Senate Judiciary Committee’s fractious hearings for conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whom Kennedy had successfully portrayed as a nightmare mix of the Salem Witch Trials, the Red Scare and the Spanish Inquisition.
Hatch was a conservative teetotaler Republican Mormon from Utah. Kennedy was more liberal than his famous brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and had enough of a boozing and womanizing reputation to be comfortably identified merely as “Ted” in tabloid headlines.
The very idea of Kennedy and Hatch working together, let alone playing together, seemed about as likely to this Washington neophyte as, say, Rush Limbaugh slipping off to happy hour with Hugo Chavez.
I had arrived from Chicago, where good politics is seldom allowed to interfere with a good political grudge. The word “comity,” which is the ability of adversaries to get along, was heard in Chicago political circles about as often as the N-word at an NAACP convention.
But Hatch and Kennedy, it turned out, were very friendly adversaries in spite of anything Hatch himself expected when he ran for the Senate 32 years ago.
Their odd-couple relationship illustrates how, long before Kennedy’s death from a cancerous brain tumor last week, he did more to change America than any of other members of his celebrated family.
In fact, Hatch ran for the Senate determined to do battle with Ted Kennedy, he says. “”I thought someone had to take him on,” Hatch said, according to the book “Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy,” written by Boston Globe staffers, “and I just didn’t see anyone that was doing it.”
Yet when they were thrown together on two important committees, Kennedy did to Hatch what he did to other senators: He put his brilliant staff to work learning about Hatch, found areas and issues on which they could agree and wooed Hatch’s support like Romeo wooed Juliet.
At one point, Kennedy even talked his chief of staff, Nick Littlefield, an accomplished singer, into serenading Hatch with one of the ultrapatriotic songs Hatch writes in his spare time.
With co-sponsorship from Hatch, who loved helping kids and hated tobacco, Kennedy sponsored the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, now known as CHIP, to provide health insurance to low-income children not covered by Medicaid, funded by a tobacco tax.
By the time Kennedy died, Hatch was singing his praises, quite literally. He wrote a song about Kennedy’s yearlong fight against cancer and posted it on YouTube after Kennedy died.
Kennedy earned the respect of Hatch and other Republicans because he was a remarkable paradox, an ideologically driven coalition-builder. After he failed miserably in his 1980 attempt to follow his older brother to the White House, he became by all accounts the Senate’s most widely respected and trusted inside player, even among those with whom he disagreed politically.
Whether we agreed or disagreed with his legislation, he showed an important talent for building compromise and consensus that a diverse society needs in order to make its democracy work. We may not see another bridge-builder like Kenney for some time. Yet his desire to get things done in spite of personal and political differences must not be allowed to die with him.
His death deals a serious setback to President Barack Obama’s proposed health care overhaul. Yet Obama already seems to be acknowledging a lesson Kennedy learned in his own four-decade-year long health-care push: Don’t let the pursuit of a perfect deal get in the way of a good deal that can be improved later.
Kennedy often said his biggest political mistake was turning down a health care deal with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Kennedy turned it down because it wasn’t everything he wanted it to be. Yet, with its mandates on employers and other controversial innovations, it was more liberal-progressive than anything Senate Republican leaders support today.
That’s one example of how sadly today’s political landscape has changed.
Today the real problems faced by Americans everyday take a back seat to games of political and ideological payback suitable for talk radio and cable TV food fights. No obvious successors stand ready to pick up Kennedy’s ability to make the Senate’s complex wheels of personal and public politics work as well as he did.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.