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John R. Bohrer

John R. Bohrer

Posted: December 15, 2008 09:15 PM

Lessons from the Senators Kennedy


Caroline Kennedy's New York Senate candidacy is reportedly underway, and it will be rough. When Robert Kennedy finally decided to make a go at the same seat in August 1964, he predicted to his wife Ethel that he'd start out ahead, fall behind in October and then come back to win -- which is exactly what happened. It looks like the same bumpy road is ahead for his niece, with a much less certain outcome.

Questions about inexperience and nepotism are circulating, which shouldn't come as a surprise: no Kennedy has ever gone for his or her first elected office without such talk. A few wilted but most withstood the early criticisms, and the bright side is that these concerns fade with astounding speed once the race moves on to real issues.

The difference in this situation is that Ms. Kennedy would be a Senator before she is a candidate, so instead of proving herself in a campaign, she has to do it as a freshman legislator. Of course, there are hundreds of examples to look to, but the natural comparisons she can expect are to the Senators Kennedy she aspires to follow: John, Ted and Robert. It's a mixed bag of aspects to both emulate and avoid.

Her father's career there was unremarkable, but that was just the nature of the Senate at the time: it did not suffer freshman gladly. The perfect example comes from early in his first term, when he wandered to the front of chamber to chat up Arizona's Carl Hayden, by then one of the longest serving members in history (and still is today). The curious freshman asked Hayden what had changed about the Senate since his arrival during the Coolidge administration. Hayden replied with a dose of wryness, "New members did not speak in those days." John Kennedy's greatest accomplishment during his Senate career happened in fundraising dinners around the country, where he built up a network to launch his presidential campaign.

Ted Kennedy most readily took to the club politics of the Senate when he arrived in November 1962. Professing to be in it for the long haul, he went through the motions: waiting 16 months before delivering his maiden speech, attending the prayer breakfasts and, legend has it, going whiskey for whiskey with Mississippi's James O. Eastland at 10:30 in the morning (though allegedly alternating sips with dumping it into a wastebasket whenever Mr. Chairman wasn't looking). He got the subcommittee assignment he wanted from Eastland without even having to ask. Everyone seemed to like him.

Respect him? Not so much. It was clear he was not a mover in the White House. He was the president's 30 year-old kid brother, once expelled from Harvard for cheating, who often stumbled over his words. It wasn't hard for his colleagues to think of him as a dunce, if a charming one at that. But surviving a plane crash in June of 1964 changed him. In lieu of surgery to repair his broken back, he spent the rest of that year strapped to a hospital bed far from the Washington social scene. He devoted this newly found time to reeducating himself on the important issues of the day. Intellectual friends sent readings and came to tutor him, and by the time he limped back into the Senate in January, he was a new man, soon leading the first of his many major legislative battles.

The takeaway lesson for Caroline from Uncle Ted is that charm alone does not make a good Senator. Nor does proximity to the president, no matter how much you've done for him. Adam Clymer, Ted's excellent biographer, writes about Ben Bradlee seeing President Kennedy "roaring with laughter" as the young Senator appealed to him for help on a legislative issue. "Tough shit," was the President's reply to his long list of local grievances.

Robert Kennedy came to the Senate having been closer to the presidency than anyone. Yet the "Assistant President," as some called him, avoided national politics... as long as he could anyway. He began highly focused on the issues of his adopted state, New York, with special care toward the Republican-leaning areas. He took a fact-finding tour of upstate cities and towns within a month of his election, and was on the Senate floor within four weeks of his swearing in to secure increased federal aid for the Southern Tier counties. He lobbied the Veterans Administration to prevent the shuttering of some hospitals. Such early (and successful) initiative was uncommon for a new member in those days, and rankled his colleagues. But by then it was 1965. Robert's defiance of protocol was a harbinger of the times to come, and his effort on local issues paid off great political dividends.

How he did with New York's Democratic power brokers was a different story. Though his election to the Senate broke a ten-year Democratic losing streak for the significant statewide offices, he floundered in the intra-party struggles. He didn't have a major victory until June 1966, and even then it was short-lived. Caroline Kennedy would do well to focus on serving her constituents, but staying out of local turf wars.

But the most important way Ms. Kennedy should emulate her family in the Senate is by making specific policy statements and putting out white papers on every issue, big and small. When Robert Kennedy's Senate candidacy was suffering, he put aides to work on dairy farm price supports and maritime issues. Ted Kennedy would go to small towns and answer every last question to prove he was not a lightweight.

No matter how well Caroline Kennedy does in her first few years, she will repeatedly hear how she's just a name, how she's more interested in serving herself than the people of New York, or how she's not living up to the Kennedys who came before her. What she should remember is that it's all been said before about those very same people.

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