An Encounter with Ted Kennedy

09/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ted Kennedy, who was honored Monday night, has been a force in the U.S. Senate for a very long time. The following is a little known story but typical of the kind of power Kennedy wielded in the Senate, as early as the late 1960s. This is a story related to me by former Senator Mike Gravel, who served 12 years with Ted Kennedy, believing Ted to be a great senator and formidable sparring partner:

Before winning the general election I flew to Washington in September 1968 seeking money and advice. I was pumped. I remember on approach to National Airport spying the Capitol dome through the mist below.

I had stopped in Waverly, Minnesota to meet Hubert Humphrey. Hubert, who was in the middle of his presidential race against Nixon, told me: "Give four years to the Lord, and then start worrying about being re-elected. Don't even think about campaigning for the first four years. Just concentrate on being the best damn senator you can be." I never met a finer man in politics than Hubert Humphrey.

In D.C., I met with other prominent Democratic senators who wanted to keep the seat in Democratic hands. Though I was the nominee from the largest state with seemingly the least influence, it was oil-rich with important military installations. Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader and Russell Long, the Senate Majority Whip, advised me about what to expect in the Senate. As I left Long's office, he said, "You know Mike, nobody is running against me for re-election for Whip in January, so I would appreciate if I had your support."

"Of course I'll support you," I said. He was the Whip. Without opposition there was no sense not supporting him. I hadn't even been elected yet, so it was an honor to be even asked.

I then met Ted Kennedy on the back porch of his McLean, Va. townhouse, mostly to have pictures taken with him. Napolitan used the photos in a revised version of the film Man for Alaska for the general election. We renamed it Man for the 70s. I also chatted with Ted about life in the Senate and gave him my condolences about the unconscionable loss of Bobby just three months earlier.

Back in Anchorage at Christmas, after I was elected, I got a telephone call. It was Kennedy. He was out skiing with his kids somewhere. It wasn't like any other family on a skiing holiday. It was always an event: Something for the picture magazines, like their touch football games.

"You know Mike, I've decided to run for Whip," he said. "I want your support."

I couldn't believe it. First off, I thought it was a stupid idea. He's practically the next presidential nominee. Why would he want to become a minion of the Senate? He didn't need to be number two behind Mansfield. Secondly, I'd just promised my support to Long because he told me he was running unopposed.

"Ted," I said. "I committed myself to Russell Long. I didn't know you were going to run. You never told me anything. I saw you a day after I saw Russell."
"I'm sure..." he said.

"Look it," I cut him off. "From an ideological point of view, you'd be my candidate. But I'm not going to start off my career by giving my word of support and then chucking it to go with you." I hadn't even been sworn in yet and my credibility would be in question.

"Oh, I understand," Kennedy said. I thought that was the end of it. But these are the Kennedys. You don't turn the Kennedys down. I was a brand new man coming in to the exclusive club and I had refused to become a Kennedy man. He wanted me on a leash, like he had others. So he unleashed his people on me. They hounded me to get my vote. Before the election for Whip I called him.

"Look, Ted, get these people off my fucking back," I said. "I told you my situation. I'm sorry I can't support you. But you get them off my back."

Ted Kennedy hadn't been spoken to like that in a very long time. I got sworn in on January 3, 1969 and the vote for Whip was held. Ted won. He took over the committee on committees, giving him the power to determine who served on what committees. I requested to be on the Commerce committee to take Bartlett's place. When I didn't get it, I asked Robert Byrd why. He said Ted objected. I got Environment and Public Works instead. I also had to serve under Scoop Jackson on the Energy committee, because I was from an energy state. At first I had a good relationship with Jackson.

I gave it back to Ted a few times on the floor. He realized he screwed the wrong guy. So he tried to make it up to me. When my wife's father died I had to tell him, since he was Whip, that I would be absent from the Senate for the funeral. Ted sent flowers to this very modest Montana farmer. It was a big deal at the service when those flowers arrived from the presumed next president of the United States.

The above is an excerpt from A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man's Fight to Stop It by Sen. Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria, published by Seven Stories Press.

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