Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An All-Time Great in Congress

It was the kind of report this state has been dreading since Saturday. The perpetual motion machine that is Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor. That sad news comes just as people were starting to hope that Kennedy, who was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital on Saturday after suffering a seizure, really was going to be OK.

Now, while they hope for the best, Kennedy's friends and fans must begin to imagine a time without him in the US Senate. And that's awfully hard to do. Presidents and governors have come and gone, but Kennedy has been a constant for the Commonwealth. He's been a famous, forceful, resolute voice in national politics for as long as most of us have been politically aware.

"Let's be hopeful and optimistic," Kennedy's old friend Gerry Doherty said yesterday, his voice seeming to quaver as he tried to be hopeful himself. "He has a great amount of physical resilience." He recalled Kennedy's grit after the June 1964 plane crash that broke his back and left him hospitalized for five months. "He is a tough guy," Doherty said.

He's that and more. Stroll out past the Courageous Sailing Center on Pier 4 in Charlestown, and you'll find a large granite boulder dedicated to the senator by Mayor Tom Menino and the citizens of Boston on his 70th birthday. It's an appropriate monument, because for decades, Kennedy has been an absolute rock for this city and this state.

"There's nobody like him," Governor Deval Patrick said on Monday. No, there isn't. Kennedy is a political nonpareil, a legend in his own time who, after four and a half decades in the Senate, still toils like a miner at his trade. He numbers with a small handful of all-time greats in Congress. A list of what he has done for this state would stretch almost to infinity.

In a business where people eye each other suspiciously, Kennedy enjoys a remarkable esteem on both sides of the aisle. He's fierce in a fight, but he has the ability to battle without making it personal. Nor is he a pointless partisan. As was once said of William Gladstone, Kennedy is an old(er) man in a hurry - a hurry to get things done. One reason he's so effective is that he's not an ideologue, but rather a principled pragmatist who understands that accomplishments require compromise.

When it comes to his bedrock values, however, Kennedy won't bend. John Sasso, who got his start in national politics working on Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign, remembers the 1994 Senate campaign, when the senator stood in genuine danger of losing to a hard-charging Mitt Romney. Senior members of Kennedy's campaign team were at his Back Bay condo, going over worrisome polling numbers - numbers that showed people thought Kennedy was out of step with the times. One adviser brought up the charged issue of welfare - only to have Kennedy stop him in mid-sentence.

"He said, 'I am not going to change how I approach poor people for the sake of this campaign. I don't care what happens,' " Sasso recalls. Perhaps less known is Kennedy's human touch. In a business full of the pompous and the self-absorbed, he is a genuine people person with a deep sense of compassion. Longtime Kennedy friend Phil Johnston recalls that when his oldest sister, Kate Coffey, died in 2002, Kennedy called late in the day to express his condolences. "I later found out that his daughter Kara was diagnosed with lung cancer that same day," Johnston says. "But he still found time to call. That's the kind of sensitivity to others that he displays regularly."

One thing I've often heard from readers is how Kennedy solved a problem for them that no one else had even seemed to care about. He has never lost his energy or his empathy. "It's amazing the number of people in the last two days who have asked me to give him their best wishes, and to say that he helped them to do this or that," says Doherty. Millions will be pulling for him and praying for him as he begins his most difficult fight.

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