09/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Would Teddy Do?

As the health care debate unfolds, I hope someone holds up giant banners at the Capitol, maintaining a vigil that asks, "What Would Teddy Do?" In the search for an answer, I do know that you cannot take full measure of a contemporary legislative giant without also taking full measure of his or her staff. Each Senator's office has its own culture with widely diverging degrees of humanity on display. Some are all brains and no heart, a horrifying number evidence neither brains nor heart. Senator Kennedy's office was heart first, heads close behind -- a critical, illuminating reflection of the Senator himself.

As an advisor to former liberal Republican Senator Mark O. Hatfield (the last true one) for more than a decade, I worked very closely with Senator Kennedy and his staff and worked for him too, serving on the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Freeze Foundation the two Senators formed to press for arms control at a time when our nation inched closer to nuclear Armageddon than all but a handful of people knew then or will ever know.

In the early 1980's, when the prospects for another Kennedy run for the Presidency were very real, his office could only be described as a White House in exile, a juggernaut to behold. Senator Kennedy's office possessed the world's largest rolodex of progressive luminaries, celebrities, scientists, experts, former Generals, and scholars of every stripe; all of whom could be mobilized for duty in a heartbeat.

Can't persuade the Committee Chairman to hold a hearing? No problem. Hatfield and I will take the same damned room, summon every witness we want, and call it a "Forum."

There never was, and there never will be again, an operation like his. Kennedy's staff was smart as hell, ambitious, committed, aggressive, and for the politically uninitiated, tough at times.

Knowing of my relationship with the senior Kennedy staff, a legislative assistant on our staff once approached me in a panic for help. Senate staffs work hard jockeying to make sure credit goes to the boss when something desirable is accomplished, often legitimately, but just as often not. This legislative assistant believed that someone in the Kennedy operation was going to hijack credit for a Hatfield accomplishment and that a press announcement was imminent. So I called and explained the situation to one of Kennedy's top people. I'll never forget the response. He said, "Hey, we've got a lot of overly eager people over here, but we love Senator Hatfield. Consider it taken care of."

You had to earn their respect and they didn't suffer fools or shrinking violets gladly. I remember another occasion when one of our staffers returned from the Kennedy office thrashed and ashen. He had just attended a meeting to hammer out the logistics of the 20th Anniversary of President Kennedy's call for the Soviets to join the US in signing a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at American University, where the two Senators were to speak. The single-minded focus of the Kennedy staff was clearly on the anticipation of a run for the White House; giving it, shall we say, an inevitable "Kennedy-centric" flavor. I walked over to straighten things out and found myself sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, interrogation style. There was some rough and tumble, one explosive walk out of the room; then mutual respect carried the day and everything was fine.

This might seem out of character as it is also absolutely true that one of Senator Kennedy's most impressive qualities as a legislator was his complete willingness to share, or even give away if necessary, all credit. My boss, Senator Hatfield, was also such a man. Indeed, when I informed him of my efforts on his behalf to insure that we would not be swallowed up by the Kennedy campaign monster, he didn't indicate that he cared one way or another. And when the two Senators were together, they would virtually trip over one another in genuine expressions of respect and deference. "You go first Ted," "No Mark, after you", etc. It was fun to watch. The rest of the stuff was a staff matter.

That kind of hearfelt rapport can go a long way, but I doubt whether it could have gone far enough to achieve dramatic health care reform given the current Republican Party's mood.

With Senator Kennedy's death, the pundits are indulging in speculation about how his absence during the health care debate will affect the ultimate outcome. Republican Senators who disagreed with him but trusted him, have been heard to say that had he been fully engaged, the "too liberal" shape of the likely options would never have occurred. Another perspective is that only Senator Kennedy could calm the liberal renegades in the Democratic Party who are threatening to oppose anything less than a public option. Everyone seems to have their own take on what Senator Kennedy's history embracing the notion that "half a loaf is better than nothing", means in this instance.

There may be some truth in both perspectives, but they are ultimately wrong. The "heart first, head second" operation he led shows why. One of his greatest regrets was that at the age of 39 he opposed President Nixon's plan to achieve universal health care because he thought it tilted too far in favor of the insurance companies. Though the enormous cumulative human impact of his work should never be underestimated, every "carving of the loaf" he has participated in since then has been a heartbreak; piecemeal stabs to secure medical care for a million children here and hundreds of thousands there. Each inch forward reminded Ted Kennedy of the miles left to go to reach the tens of millions still abandoned to despair. Universal health care wasn't in the cards when he and his staff secured those bittersweet legislative victories. Now it is. This is a different game.

Were Ted Kennedy still gallantly walking the Halls of Congress today, bravely waging war against his own Herculean physical challenges; I am certain that his heart would never rest or mend until no man, woman or child living in the United States will ever again face the fear of being denied critical medical procedures like those his family has been blessed to receive - tragically - and to a greater extent than any family should ever endure. That would have been his cut-off point on the loaf, and in the end, the Lion and his pack would have pounced on anyone who would demand even a sliver less. What would Teddy do? Ask his staff.