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Senator Kennedy and the Animated Discourse of Liberty

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When I was growing up, my family thought Teddy Kennedy was the closest thing to the devil incarnate. His politics were way too liberal for the Nolans, and as Catholics we were embarrassed by his personal failings. But God has a sense of humor, and years later I found myself working closely with Senator Kennedy on issues about which we were both passionate - combating prison rape and protecting the religious rights of prisoners.

I want to make clear I was not buddies with the Senator, and we only met a few times. I think in the last few days every person who was ever in Fenway Park when the Senator was at a Red Sox game has written something along the lines of "My Life with Teddy Kennedy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow."

But as a former legislator I had a chance to see him in action up close. I can spot the difference between a hard worker and a sponge. I have found that legislators usually fell into three categories - the showhorses, the workhorses, and those nice but inert people who never can quite figure out what is happening. In each of my encounters with Senator Kennedy I could see he was definitely a workhorse, much to my surprise.

The first time I met the Senator I introduced him at a press conference to announce legislation that would reassert protections for religion weakened by the Supreme Court. Kennedy was one of several sponsors of the bill, an impressive group of respected leaders from both left and right from both houses of Congress. Each legislator read strong statements in support of the bill. Nice words but pedestrian. On paper they were probably well phrased, but the delivery was uninspired and uninspiring.

Senator Kennedy was the last speaker. He placed his note cards on the podium, but never looked at them. Instead, he delivered an extemporaneous, eloquent and passionate defense of religious liberty. His words were from the heart and they soared. This was true oratory, the kind we read in Catholic school. I had been similarly inspired from the pulpit on a few occasions, but the only other person in politics who could speak like that was Ronald Reagan. And Senator Kennedy's word weren't empty. They were powerful, expressing what were clearly sincerely held beliefs.

A few years later, I testified in support of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Senator Kennedy was the principal sponsor, and the bill had strong bi-partisan support. Following our testimony, the senators asked us questions. This is usually a frustrating ritual in which senators read the questions prepared by their staffs. After the witnesses give their answers, the senators ignore the responses and plunge into the next prepared question.

The prison rape hearing followed the typical pattern...until it was Senator Kennedy's turn. He had obviously listened carefully to what we had said. His questions helped bring out important points we had made or probed further to bring clarity. He exhibited a thorough knowledge of prison rape and its implications for public health and safety. He spoke fervently about the moral depravity of those who ignored the pleas of prisoners who have been raped. And he effectively debunked the claims that prison rape is very rare. I was very impressed with the depth of his knowledge and his commitment to combating prison rape.

One other observation about the Senator: he treated his staff well. They were clearly part of a team, not mere subordinates. And he had a skill for hiring and keeping top notch people. Despite his image as a fierce ideologue I found he was willing accommodate opposition concerns. Of course, on issues like abortion, gay marriage and judicial nominations he sought no middle ground. On the other hand, neither he nor his staff disrespected my own strongly held views on these hot button topics. They were willing to ignore our differences, and work on the issues where there was common ground. In fact, the Senator and his staff were eager to find those issues where we could work together.

The patriot Sam Adams celebrated the "animated discourse of liberty." Senator Kennedy continued that heritage of animated and civil discourse that is the hallmark of the American Republic.