Sen. Kennedy's Talent: Reaching Across The Aisle

Peter Canellos edited the biography Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy. He explains to Renee Montagne how Sen. Kennedy was able to reach across the aisle and make close friends with those who had very different political viewpoints. Canellos says over time Kennedy learned he had to work incrementally to achieve things in the Senate.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We have more now on the life of Senator Ted Kennedy. He died last night of brain cancer. Peter Canellos is the editor of a recent biography of the senator. We reached him this morning on Cape Cod as he was driving to the Kennedy family home in Hyannis Port.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PETER CANELLOS (Editor, "The Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy"): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we begin, in a sense, with the end? Would you talk to us about the final months of Senator Edward Kennedy's life?

Mr. CANELLOS: Senator Kennedy spent his final months in the home that his parents bought in the 1920s, the family retreat near Hyannis, Massachusetts. And you know, if there's any place that he wanted to die, this was the place. This was what he considered his lifelong home.

MONTAGNE: You know, many people know the arc of his life, with many dark times and tragedies in his personal history. But it seems in the last few decades he literally roared back into politics and if anything became more effective by giving up his quest for the presidency.

Mr. CANELLOS: I think he did. I think that giving up his presidential ambition was a tremendous release for him. He felt a deep family obligation to follow in his brother's footsteps and to run for president. And once he got over that hump, he was able to concentrate on what he was excellent at, which was legislative politics and building coalitions to get meaningful legislation passed.

MONTAGNE: How did he manage to reach across the aisle? How did he manage to make close friends with those who had very different political viewpoints than he did and even fought him on many things?

Mr. CANELLOS: Well, what he learned over time was that to achieve something in the Senate you had to work incrementally. He early on advocated national health care, national health insurance, and rejected deals that he later regretted having rejected. When President Nixon was offering a national insurance plan, he said no, let's go for a single-payer. He said that he regretted making that decision and learned that, you know, you had to sort of stake a commitment over time and see it through.

MONTAGNE: You know, talking about health care, why did health care, which he called in an essay in Newsweek last month the cause of my life, why did universal health care mean so much to him?

Mr. CANELLOS: I think that Ted constantly saw these specialists and experts treating the Kennedy family, which his father saw as one of the rewards as being wealthy, and he wondered why average people couldn't get the same treatment. In 1964, he was in a plane crash and spent the better part of six months in bed at a rehab hospital. And he would ask his aides during that time, you know, how did your family ever pay for this? You know, the Kennedys could just write a check, but most families couldn't afford it.

So I think that, you know, it became a humanistic commitment of his over the years and his prime legislative focus.

MONTAGNE: Now, last year, when he gave his endorsement to Barack Obama, how significant was that endorsement and what did it mean to have the senior Kennedy out campaigning as much as he was able to do?

Mr. CANELLOS: If you recall, that endorsement was about a week and a half before Super Tuesday. And Hillary Clinton was well-known by Democrats in every one of those states. Barack Obama had not campaigned in those states. And many people, including me, felt like it would be impossible for Obama to make up that ground against her in such a short time.

So for Ted Kennedy, who was sort of the gold standard of liberal Democrats, to come out and say, you know, not only is Barack Obama experienced enough but I feel like he's the best candidate and the true heir to my brother, it meant a great deal, especially to those core Democrats that vote in the party primaries.

MONTAGNE: There will be many things for which Senator Kennedy will be remembered, but when you look ahead, what story do you think will be told about him?

Mr. CANELLOS: I think that the whole arc of his life as the very unlikely standard bearer for this great family, you know, the ninth child who rises to become the family leader, and then who messed up in such a big way and proves himself unworthy through this Chappaquiddick accident and some of his personal behavior, but then redeems himself with this legislative legacy that will last for the ages - it's a tremendous fall and rise story. And that's the story that will be told about Ted Kennedy.

MONTAGNE: Peter Canellos is editor of "The Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy."

Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. CANELLOS: Thank you.

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