As a political journalist, Lloyd Grove interviewed Edward Kennedy in the ’90s—and was on the receiving end of a Bob Dornan rant about Chappaquiddick (within Teddy’s earshot) in the ’80s.
Before I got to know Ted Kennedy in 1996—in the course of preparing a lengthy profile for The Washington Post—he seemed a melodramatic, over-the-top personality more suited to a trashy airport novel than everyday life. He was at once mythic and all too mortal, a package of reckless appetites wrapped in glamorous mystique—Washington’s aging movie star with a bad-boy past (not to mention that tragic burden it was his destiny to shoulder).
As one of the most recognizable people on the planet—at least as famous for his flaws as for his gifts—he had little control over how people saw him. No matter how long and hard he toiled in the service of his ideals, in the minds of some, he would always be an out-of-control cartoon character who swigged whiskey, chased women, and worse.
Ted was giggling and having cocktails with his close friend and fellow cut-up, Sen. Chris Dodd; this was during the height of their Batman and Robin phase.
One afternoon in 1985, I found myself sitting a couple of rows behind him on the Eastern Airlines shuttle from La Guardia to Washington National. He was giggling and having cocktails with his close friend and fellow cut-up, Sen. Chris Dodd; this was during the height of their Batman and Robin phase. My seatmate was Rep. Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan, a rabidly right-wing Southern California Republican who had dabbled in acting and broadcast news before running for office. The flamed-haired Dornan couldn’t take his eyes off the back of Kennedy’s head. Judging by the congressman’s death stare, you’d think Kennedy possessed demonic powers.
“I just cannot conceive of the thought of this guy being the president,” Dornan rasped at me. “As a television journalist, I swam the [Chappaquiddick] channel on the 26th of July, 1969. I went to the Shiretown Inn and sat at a table and asked the waitress, ‘I understand that Ted Kennedy had breakfast here,’ and she said, ‘Yes, at this table.’…And I said, ‘What did he do?’ and she said, ‘He read the paper.’” Suddenly Dornan was shouting maniacally: “READING THE PAPER? WHEN HE KNOWS THAT HER BODY IS WASHING AROUND IN THE BACK OF A DARK CAR UPSIDE DOWN IN POUCHA POND?” Dornan’s voice was loud enough to carry over the engine noise. But if Kennedy heard it, he didn’t let on. There was nary a flinch.
Eleven years later, the senator was cementing his reputation as one of the most effective lawmakers in modern American history. The Palm Beach trial and a hairy reelection race (against a liberal Massachusetts Republican named Mitt Romney) were behind him; he had publicly apologized for “the faults in the conduct of my private life” and had settled happily into a second marriage to Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie. The Democrats were in the minority, but Kennedy was somehow managing to set the agenda, prompting Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, to protest impotently: “Ted Kennedy does not run the world.” So when I asked to shadow him as he worked the levers of legislation—the sort of behind-the-scenes access never before granted a reporter—Kennedy took a chance and said yes.
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery
In an impressive show of sheer, unadulterated clout, he even got President Bill Clinton—a politician not known for spending a lot of time showering praise on others—to call me at home for a lengthy conversation. As Kennedy grabbed hold of the raging issues of the day—federal aid for arson-damaged black churches, a rise in the minimum wage, and, yes, that perennial challenge of health-insurance reform—I sat in on his closed-door meetings with colleagues and staffers. There were hours of highly technical early-morning briefings with think tank experts—Kennedy peppering the air with grunted questions. There were strategy sessions in which the senator ordered staffers to find a Southern conservative to join in pushing for black church aid; at one point he wondered aloud if highly placed Mormon clergymen might be recruited to pressure recalcitrant Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Labor Committee, into moving the aid bill forward.
I came away with a clear picture not of the scary left-wing ideologue depicted in the Republicans’ direct-mail fundraising appeals, but of a dogged legislative technician with an almost tactile feel for the internal politics of any given situation, and a savvy strategist with a sharp eye for detail.
My favorite, and perhaps most revealing, moment was when Kennedy perused some color charts—designed by his staff for use on the floor during the minimum-wage debate—purporting to show rising employment levels in the restaurant industry at the same time that the minimum wage was being increased. The senator zeroed in on two years in the chart when employment levels appeared to be decreasing slightly as higher minimum wage levels were being phased in. “How do you answer that?” he demanded with irritation.
“We were in the middle of a recession,” the staffer replied.
• The Daily Beast's Complete Kennedy Coverage: Tributes, Photos, and Videos “Well, you can say that,” the senator scoffed. “If I was the opponent I’d say that in 1990, when you first put in the increase, employment went down. And the next year, when it was fully implemented, it went down even further.”
The staffer urged that Kennedy simply explain the anomaly on the Senate floor, attributing the falling employment numbers to an economy in overall recession. “You can do this,” he exhorted his boss.
“I’m not going to have to do it!” Kennedy shot back as he rose to leave the meeting. He didn’t look back as he added icily: “We’ll have more answers than we have now!”
By the way, the minimum-wage increase passed, so did the health-insurance bill, and Kennedy also got the money for the black churches.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.