A Former Counsel to Kennedy, on Kennedy

09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The longest I've ever worked for anyone was for Ted Kennedy. I was joint Labor Committee staff to him and Senator Paul Wellstone for four years. Here's some of what I took away from that experience.

For all forty-six years Kennedy has been a Senator, he's kept the same office: third floor Russell, facing the Capitol. It had been JFK's office and Ted wanted to keep it. (He also kept his brother's desk on the Senate Floor, even though that meant sitting among Junior Senators for his entire career and not moving up along with his seniority). Every time I walked into Kennedy's reception office -- contrary to what one might expect -- I grew depressed.

Because every square inch of the walls of his reception office is blanketed with spectacularly intimate, private photographs of Ted's beautiful, powerful, principled -- and dead family. Joe Jr., Jack, Bobby, JFK Jr. Giving speeches, hugging, being sworn in to offices, mulling the issues of their day, loving their children. I walked into Ted's office and saw the photos and wanted to cry.

When I was ushered into his conference room or his personal office, it got worse. The photos seemed to grow larger, more imposing, more candid. Immeasurably poignant glimpses into a family dedicated to enlightened and intelligent public service. By the time I would meet with the Senator -- which was not that often, because Wellstone hired me and I spent the greater part of my time with him -- I was often despondent.

But the Senator never was. My experience of Ted was that he had two prevalent states of mind: jovial and light-hearted, or focused and pissed. He either wanted to laugh about personal stories, or he wanted to talk about work, in which case he was all business. No one who worked for EMK (as we called him) doubted that legislation was his life's work. He was more committed to politics than anyone I've ever known.

Which is why, when I started working for Kennedy, I developed a theory about those photographs. I figured he kept them nearby to remind him of the banner that had fallen from his family's hands to his. Those photos reminded him, to paraphrase Lincoln, that from these honored dead he should take increased devotion to the causes for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, and resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

But then I spent years working for his Labor Committee. Bill after bill, hearing after hearing, speech after speech. I watched Kennedy encounter what felt like unbearable challenges. And while I appreciated how hard he worked and how intensely he drove his staff, I also grew to admire how well he treated his staff. Certainly he could be brutal and demanding at times. But he never lost his temper without apologizing for it. And, as the Washington Post reports today, Kennedy's "aides stayed longer than most assistants in other offices, in part because Kennedy entrusted them with responsibility and relied on their expertise. Occasionally, he supplemented their salaries from his own funds to keep them from leaving."

That's just the half of it. Kennedy was committed to his staff's advancement. With due respect to Harvard, he considered his office to be "the Real Kennedy School of Government" and he wanted all of us to have careers of our own. He parented us. When we left -- and over so many years, all of us of course had to -- he was saddened. I saw him cry about a trusted employee's departure more than once. When many of his top staffers left his office, he would throw them lavish farewell parties at his own expense. And even paint paintings for them, sweet and delicate watercolors, often of the sea, and sailing.

By the time I left Kennedy's service, I had an entirely different theory of why he kept photos of his family so prominently displayed. I think he just loved the people in those pictures. I think he missed them and wanted, in any way possible, to keep them around. Keep them alive. So many people came and went in his life, and Ted was the only constant. I think it weighed on him, and the photos gave him a measure of comfort.

Those photos of EMK and his family, frozen impressions of a history painful to me even when Kennedy was alive, make my heart ache that much more now that he's gone. But I'll keep some of his photos near me anyway, for the same reasons he kept his.