Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 4:18 pm | Fair 60º


Susan Estrich: Sen. Kennedy Made His Mark

He faced his share of obstacles, but he persevered and made it his life's work to look out for society's less privileged

He was not a natural.

He did not have the gift that President Bill Clinton had, that President Barack Obama has, the gift of making whatever he said sound smart and moving.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich

The first time I wrote “talking points” for him, for a floor statement on something 30 years ago next week, I hid in the back of the Senate gallery as he mumbled his way through it, adding “uhs” instead of verbs. I saw what America did in November of that year, in that famous Roger Mudd interview, which sounded like my floor speech.

He was not what you would call a great “student,” the way Mike Dukakis was and Hillary Clinton is, someone who could consume information, demand more, the smartest kid in the class who actually enjoys reading policy tomes. He enjoyed wine, women and song until he met and married the woman he loved.

I learned to write short memos working for the senator. Say it in a page, now-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer used to say to me when we were putting things in the briefcase that the senator took home every night of his life, as far as I know.

I’ve been to the bridge at Chappaquiddick. He was flawed. He knew that. The world knew that. Whether you forgive him or not doesn’t matter anymore.

The point is, he persevered in the face of it. I don’t know how he got up in the morning sometimes, much less why he would want to look in that briefcase every night. He had every advantage, but also every humiliation.

People made fun of him when he became a senator. He gave them ammunition. Both of his brothers died. He was responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and then he failed to alert authorities and take responsibility. A spoiled, lazy preppy would have stayed home. He worked. He became great at what he did. He cared passionately about the people he was trying to help, the people on society’s bottom rung, and he dedicated his life to them. That was it. It was his blessing.

He started out way ahead in 1979, and then he was humiliated in Iowa and New Hampshire. He kept fighting. The Democrats lost control of the Senate, and we moved into even smaller offices.

The senator decided to take “ranking” (ranking member, to lead the defense) of the Labor and Human Resources Committee instead of Judiciary because he wanted to lead the fight for the poor at a time when the Reagan Revolution was understood as a means to end public welfare programs. We would get three or four votes. Out of 100.

Most of the people who had worked on the campaign drifted away. He was never going to be president.

He worked.

Rock stars generally don’t last in the Senate, starting with John Kennedy. Too much work, too slow, too little juice. Getting something accomplished takes a remarkable amount of tedious work. Rock stars who become senators either run for something else or retire on the job. They certainly don’t make a mark.

The senator took a few of us out sailing with his mother in the summer of 1980, before the convention. He introduced me to her. She looked right through me, absolutely uninterested in whether I was the first woman whatever, and treated him like he was about 13 years old.

He shook his head, and we went back to talking about what he cared about. We were fighting to put a plank favoring national health insurance on the Democratic platform.

Keep the rudder true.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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