TED KENNEDY is in his Boston office talking about his hopes for the future, and as I sit there I can't help but wonder this: After 43 years in the Senate, does he know when to call it a day?
Mind you, it's not what Kennedy is saying that prompts the thought, but rather something Boston Mayor Tom Menino told me recently.
Kennedy calls frequently to discuss Boston's needs, Menino said -- and on at least one occasion, the senator phoned him at home on a Saturday night to offer an issue update. If I recall correctly, hizzoner's eyes rolled skyward as he imparted that piece of information.
''Who would think Senator Kennedy would call you at 7 o'clock on a Saturday night?" Menino said last week.
Sometimes, Kennedy seems to think he's a district city councilor, the mayor added. At City Hall, that's considered quite the compliment, I expect.
In their remarks last Wednesday at the signing of the state's new healthcare law, both Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Sal DiMasi mentioned the prodding calls they had had from the state's senior senator.
How often had he heard from Kennedy, I asked DiMasi?
''Say, over the course of the last three or four months, 15 times or so," the Speaker replied.
Ted Kennedy is 74. In the last few weeks, he's been at the center of the action on immigration reform, offering, with Arizona Republican John McCain, the outlines of the approach the Senate seems likely to pursue. Last Wednesday, shortly after he spoke with me, Kennedy was among the dignitaries on stage for the signing of the healthcare law. In coming weeks, he'll be one of the senators trying to loosen President Bush's restrictive stem-cell policy.
I think even his critics would have to concede he's putting in a pretty good day's work.
Kennedy, in collaboration with journalist Jeff Madrick, also has a book out, ''America Back on Track," a volume that's part critique of the Bush administration, part agenda for the future.
Oddly, he's also been catching grief from the left.
Senate Democrats are agrumble because he agreed Republicans should be able to offer amendments to the immigration bill. Locally, he's been criticized because he joined Governor Mitt Romney for the signing of the new healthcare law, $385 million in yearly federal funding for which Kennedy helped obtain. (How dast Kennedy celebrate a bipartisan achievement on an issue as trivial as expanding healthcare, knowing full well that the Republican Romney will probably use the new law to burnish his own political reputation!)
On this day, Kennedy shrugs off criticism that he's too accommodating to Senate Republicans. ''I have got too much to do to worry about it," he says.
Kennedy's book is basically a call for a return to liberalism. But what if, as some maintain, the usual mood of the country tends toward conservatism?
''Anybody that would say that this is a conservative administration, when it has handled the finances of this nation the way it has, it would be mischaracterizing what the current situation is," Kennedy replies.
But he also rejects the notion that the country has moved right.
''People haven't lost their sense of compassion, they haven't lost their sense of decency, they haven't lost their sense of fairness," he avers.
To help fix the nation's finances, Kennedy says, policy makers need to raise the top three income-tax rates back to their Clinton-era levels.
Certainly he's right that taxes will have to go up, if we're not to keep on mortgaging the future. But will the public accept that reality?
''You have to gain the confidence of the American people about . . . the challenges we are facing here," says Kennedy, who insists the right leader could persuade them.
''The American people, they want authenticity and leadership and strength," he says.
But does authenticity number among the strengths of John Kerry, whom Kennedy backed for president in 2004 and whom he has said he'll support again in 2008?
''I think John's learned a lot," Kennedy says. ''I think he'd be a better candidate now than he was last time."
Perhaps, but can one learn authenticity?
As for Kennedy's book, it's certainly a heartfelt progressive policy primer, though reading it one could be forgiven for wondering how much it would all cost. Still, if I were the mayor of Boston I'd rush right out and get a copy -- just in case Kennedy calls on Saturday night.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.