Bay State, D.C. reflect on ailing icon

Kennedy's fans, contributions cross party lines

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May 18, 2008

This story was reported by Brian C. Mooney, Sasha Issenberg, and Susan Milligan of the Globe staff.

At some point yesterday, especially in the morning when early indications were dire, politicians in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., paused to imagine what life would be like without Ted Kennedy. The result was a blend of fear and sadness.

"The political world just shut down," declared Representative Barney Frank in the middle of the day, speaking from Maine, where he was traveling after appearing with Kennedy on Friday in New Bedford.

In Massachusetts' robust Democratic political culture, where Kennedy has attained almost mythic stature, there were wishes for a full recovery from a seizure. But there were also reflections on what Edward Moore Kennedy's 45-plus years in the US Senate have meant to the Bay State, and to all the institutions and programs that benefited from his ability to deliver the goods on Capitol Hill.

"He's one of the giants," said Michael S. Dukakis, a former three-term governor, who, like Kennedy before him and Senator John F. Kerry after him, lost campaigns for president. "If you needed something, wanted to produce something, you called him and, bang, you got it, and he never asked for anything in return."

"Ted Kennedy is the go-to guy on everything," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston. "You name it: education, housing, a photonics lab at Boston University, the merger of City Hospital and University Hospital, he even recommended Tom Payzant, who became superintendent of schools in Boston for 10 1/2 years."

The news that Kennedy had been hospitalized yesterday left Washington itself stricken, temporarily paralyzing a city increasingly filled with people who have never had to imagine politics without him.

From a nationwide network of loyal former aides, to his dozens of famous family members, to scores of fellow senators, all but one of whom were preceded into the chamber by Kennedy, shock eased into tentative relief as the unofficial word came from Boston that Kennedy appeared to be already recovering.

"Ted and I have been friends for 30 years," said Senator Orrin Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah who has worked closely with Kennedy on education and healthcare legislation, whose spokesman later expressed Hatch's relief at learning that Kennedy was reportedly conscious and talking.

Still, many people in Washington spent the day trying to explain why they value Kennedy so much. Some Democrats cited his feisty and relentless devotion to old-fashioned liberal values, while many Republicans pointed to a courtly pragmatism that has allowed Kennedy to maintain close friendships with conservatives.

"He's been in the Senate long enough to know you have to build allies and coalitions that transcend party and ideological differences," said Bill Carrick, who worked on Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign and cited the senator's "great ability to get along with people and not take things personally while at the same time staying true to his own principles."

Kennedy is so durable that he has come to embody two competing Washington archetypes - the partisan fighter and the dealmaker - so seamlessly that people have stopped noticing the contradiction. Last year, he was the driving force behind a bipartisan immigration overhaul that brought together Bush Cabinet secretaries and legislators of both parties. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described Kennedy as "awesome" for his work on the bill, which ultimately failed to pass in the Senate.

"When you work with Kennedy, he's good to his word. He'll take a hit, he'll push back against members of his own party," said Mark Salter, an aide to McCain, who partnered with Kennedy on the immigration bill. "McCain admires that, for obvious reasons."

But, Salter noted, it was a series of personal gestures that turned the two long-time colleagues into friends. When McCain was awarded a "Profiles in Courage" award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in 1999, Kennedy arranged a ride across Boston Harbor on a Coast Guard cutter for McCain's son, Jimmy, then celebrating a birthday. As McCain won primaries earlier this year, he came to expect congratulatory phone calls from Kennedy even on nights when he did not hear from all his Republican rivals.

"He's the best person at keeping in touch with people I've ever known politically or otherwise. You never leave the Kennedy universe," said Carrick, now a political consultant based in Los Angeles, who recalls that Kennedy called him during a spate of recent California wildfires to see how far the flames were from Carrick's home.

"He's indefatigable," said Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, who often spends weekend days sailing with Kennedy on Cape Cod and said he "almost couldn't breathe" when he first heard the news yesterday.

Not only in Massachusetts and Washington, but across the country, there exists an army of former staff members and campaign operatives who have worked for Kennedy. They are among the best in the business and for many, a bond endures over the decades.

Some, like attorney Gerard Doherty of Charlestown, trace their relationship with the Kennedys back to John F. Kennedy's first campaign for Congress in 1946. The allegiance transferred automatically to the later campaigns of his brothers, Ted Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

Doherty believes Ted Kennedy's crusade for universal healthcare dates back to 1964, when he spent months immobilized in a frame at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton after breaking his back in a small-plane crash. They would talk for hours about treatments and how healthcare could be made more affordable, Doherty recalled.

To this day, Kennedy takes on unpublicized missions to help individuals in need of specialized treatment, Doherty said.

"People will scratch their head and say 'Why is he working so hard for Happy Harry Smith and his individual problem when he could be coasting?' " Doherty said. "Coasting is alien to him."

'He's one of the giants. If you needed something, . . . you called him and, bang, you got it, and he never asked for anything in return.'


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