Forty-seven years ago, Ted Kennedy was elected to the Senate to take the seat that had once been held by his brother, then-president John Kennedy. At the time, he was largely regarded as an undeserved novice -- the benefactor of a family name, a Harvard failure who had coasted on privilege.
Among the nine members of the freshmen Senate class in 1962, the youngest Kennedy brother -- just 30 years old at the time -- was not pegged to leave an indelible legacy. But, over time, he stood out among his peers. Nearly five decades later, another member of that class declared definitively that Kennedy had become "the greatest Senator of the 20th Century."
In an interview with the Huffington Post, former senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern expressed his deep sorrow with the news of Kennedy's passing from brain cancer on Tuesday evening. But the South Dakota Democrat also celebrated Kennedy for how he remembers him: Congress' most diligent worker, a master of the policy minutia, and a source of personal and political strength for his party and family.
"He and I both came to the Senate the same year as part of the class of '62. And I sat side-by-side with him for several years in the Senate and we remained close friends over the years," McGovern recalled. "He was probably as hard a working person as I knew at the Senate. He got to the office early and worked late. He definitely was a senator's senator. I never thought that either John or Robert Kennedy's first love was the Senate. They were thinking first about the executive branch. But Ted, throughout his long career, was wedded to the Senate. And I think, over time, he became the greatest Senator of the 20th Century."
Below is a transcript of the brief phone interview with McGovern conducted on Wednesday morning, hours after news broke of Kennedy's death.
What was Kennedy like as a Senator, both when you worked with him and after you left public office?
Ted was always polite and respectful towards other members of the Senate, whether they were Democrats or Republicans. He always had a certain reverence to other members of the Senate. I never heard him throw cheap shots at an opposing Senator, even one quite critical of him. And that quality gained him other friends in the Senate.
One trait that I remember about Ted, when he had a loss in his family, he was the first one who called. He was faithful to that practice.
When he initially ran for Senate he was dogged by criticism that he was being elected solely because of his name. How did that affect him once he took office?
There was no question that his name helped gain him a seat in the Senate. That Kennedy name is political magic. Here he was with a brother in the White House and a Senator in New York. So obviously his name had an effect. But, in fact, I think Ted earned that seat. He ran a strenuous campaign. He conducted himself well. And once he got to the Senate he equipped himself with one of the strongest staff in the body. He always had superb people working for him.
I was told once that his father had urged all of his sons when they hired somebody to look for somebody who was smarter than they were. And I think Ted took that advice. He always had superb people working for him and he rather quickly became a respected Senator.
His career was marked by political triumphs as well as personal tragedies, none more so than the loss of his two brothers. Did he become a different person and political because of these trials?
It was a sobering experience for Ted. He was always an enthusiastic person but definitely he showed the sorrow of the loss of his two brothers. I think in effect it was a maturing experience for him. He became involved seriously in important pieces in legislation. I can't think of another senator who had a critical hand in so much important legislation as was the case with Ted.
Talk a bit, if you could, about his efforts to achieve comprehensive health care reform, including the near miss that happened during negotiations with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
Ted's passion about everything else in the Senate was to get a comprehensive national health care bill. He became an expert on the subject. He had his staff doing research on it around the clock. Nobody in the Senate could match the commitment that Ted gave to finding a way for comprehensive health care. I think if the Senate wanted to enact a genuine tribute to his career they would pass a good health care bill.
When Kennedy ran for the Democratic nomination for president against Jimmy Carter in 1980, what were your thoughts as a fellow Democrat and former presidential candidate?
I knew it was an uphill effort. It is very difficult to dislodge an incumbent president of your own party. And he learned that. But I think he came out of that effort with his prestige enhanced.
How has Congress changed since both you and Kennedy took office in 1962? Do you see the same willingness for Democrats and Republicans to work together in a mode that came to personify Kennedy's career.
There is still some bipartisanship in the Senate. Senator Kennedy always worked very closely, for example, with Senator [Orrin] Hatch, the Republican senator of Utah. But I'd like to see more of that... I think there needs to be of that kind of reaching across the aisle.