Kennedy Fought For The 'Underdog'

Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with NPR correspondent Juan Williams about the recent passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy and legislative highlights from his 46 years in Congress, including his involvement in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, support for a federal holiday honoring the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his push for health care and immigration reform. Host Jennifer Ludden and NPR analyst Juan Williams are joined by Frank Sharry, of the immigration reform advocacy group, America's Voice.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin's away. Coming up, four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, why are efforts of some African-American citizens to resettle in the city neighborhood sparking a conflict. We'll find out more in a moment.

But first more on the legacy of Senator Edward Kennedy. He died last night at the age of 77. With us now is NPR correspondent Juan Williams and also Frank Sharry, who's the executive director of the immigration reform advocacy group, America's Voice. Welcome both of you.

Mr. FRANK SHARRY (Executive director, America's Voice): Good to be with you, Jen.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you.

LUDDEN: Juan, first, Senator Kennedy was often used by Republicans as something of a rhetorical foil. But how did he and so many Republican senators get past their ideological differences and coauthor so much legislation?

WILLIAMS: It's really an incredible record and I'm glad you mention it because oftentimes when people talk to me about Ted Kennedy, they see him in polarizing terms as kind of a champion of all liberal causes and the anathema, of course, then of conservative causes. And I point out to them, you know, wait a second, he was best buds with John McCain, the senator from Arizona who just ran for president. He worked with George W. Bush on the prescription drug benefit under Medicare, which was, I think, one of the top domestic policy achievements of the Bush administration.

You look at something like No Child Left Behind, Ted Kennedy who cared deeply about education in the country, took on America's unions and liberal interests in order to get that victory, working again with George W. Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill. That's just the recent vintage. You go back even after Bill Clinton's problems with health care in the '90s and there was Ted Kennedy working with Nancy Kassebaum, another Republican on the issue of portability. And this goes back over the years.

And I think the reason, Jennifer, is he was a hardball pragmatist. He was all about what can I get done, what compromises are possible. And that's why Republicans, in a sense, used him because once he signed on, other Democrats then felt that they had cover in terms of political groups to join any kind of bipartisan effort without suffering a political consequence.

LUDDEN: That's interesting. Frank, one of those very controversial issues that he held near and dear was immigration. And he was crucial in trying to forge a bipartisan reform with Senator John McCain notably. Why do you think he was so active on this issue?

Mr. SHARRY: Well, I think it goes back to the legacy of his brother. Remember John F. Kennedy wrote the book "A Nation of Immigrants" and proposed legislation prior to his assassination to modernize the immigration system to allow people to come in not by the basis of their nationality but based on their family ties or work skills and it changed America.

The so-called new Americans that came since the 1965 Immigration Act have really changed the demography of the United States, more Latinos, more Asians, more Africans, more people from the Middle East and he really felt very deeply about it.

LUDDEN: Well, he liked - Senator Kennedy liked to recall his own Irish ancestors who came when there was a different time of discrimination and he would recalls the signs No Irish Need Apply.

WILLIAMS: That's right. And he talked often in the backroom as well of how he could - in his Boston office he could look out and see the ladder that his grandparents entered into Boston from Ireland, yeah.

LUDDEN: One, Kennedy was instrumental in President Bush's efforts to reform education. He was a key ally in passing No Child Left Behind. But not even all liberal advocates now view that as a success. How do you think Kennedy came to see his role in bringing that policy about?

WILLIAMS: He was still working and, I mean, he was working with Arnie Duncan the current Education Secretary, Jennifer, but even before that, he continued to work with Margaret Spellings who was President Bush's last Education Secretary to aggressively champion No Child Left Behind and push it into a new direction. Of course, the bottom line there is accountability, especially in big, urban schools for minority and poor children, lots of immigrant children, I might add.

And here was a situation where people were becoming more pronounced in their criticism, as you point out. But Kennedy was holding fast and felt that somehow the schools in the country were in need of reform and that from the federal perspective No Child Left Behind was the right prescription. So again, here he was, you know, standing as, you know, the inheritor of the Kennedy mantle, the liberal, identifiably the liberal champion on Capitol Hill. But, you know, time and again, down in the trenches when he felt that he was representing an important and vulnerable constituency, here children, willing to make deals in order to get that work done.

LUDDEN: Another piece of legislation that focused on children that has not been passed, Frank Sharry, the DREAM Act to legalize undocumented immigrant children who've been here studying, came through no fault of their own. Their parent brought them. What about his work there?

Mr. SHARRY: Yeah, you know, Senator Kennedy is a tremendous hero, particularly to Latino immigrants who are frustrated by immigration laws where they want to become American citizens but there's no line to get into. There's many valedictorians who can't go to college because they don't have status. They came illegally when they were young.

There's many workers who look at Senator - I was on the mall in Washington D.C. when he addressed a rally of about 200,000 people and the electricity and the love in that crowd for Senator Kennedy as he stood before them was something I'll never forget. He was beloved by the Latino immigrant community. And I'm sure there's a lot of Latino households that are mourning today.

LUDDEN: Juan, one last question. Immigration reform, of course, is another issue he worked on but has not happened. How do you think Senator Kennedy's death will affect any possible Senate action on that issue which has been delayed now for many months?

WILLIAMS: Well, President Obama has promised to get something going this year and I guess his hope is that he would get something legislatively accomplished in 2010. But let me just say this, Ted Kennedy is - you're hearing from Frank Sherry - Ted Kennedy was just such an effective legislator, able to not only, you know, cross the line in terms of dealing with the Republicans, but I think also very importantly able to gather Democrats in terms of their consensus so that they could make a deal with the Republicans.

And, you know, he just - President Obama loses a key champion at this critical moment. I just think, you know, if you think of so many laws, goodness gracious, every thing from the King Holiday to Medicare itself, there is Ted Kennedy. And again, I think, you know, when I was listening to Frank talk about the love in the Latino, I think about the love in the black community. And it's because Ted Kennedy is attached to the Camelot John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy legacy. He's bigger than politics. He's bigger than life in so many ways and to people who feel vulnerable, he was their champion, Jennifer. He was someone who stood with those who had been left out.

LUDDEN: All right.

WILLIAMS: And people appreciate.

LUDDEN: Juan Williams is an NPR correspondent and Frank Sharry is executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. Thanks to both of you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

MR. SHARRY: Thank you.

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