Kennedy Left Indelible Stamp

If it happened legislatively in the last 40 years, Sen. Edward Kennedy was there. From health care to education to entitlements, Kennedy was the legislative lion who roared to the end.

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In the institution of the Senate, Ted Kennedy was himself an institution. He had the third longest career of any senator in history: 46 years. In that time, he authored more than 2,500 bills and played a leading role in much of the landmark legislation passed in those years. For both his tenacity and his fierce advocacy, he was known as the lion of the Senate.

NPR's David Welna reports on how Kennedy earned that title.

DAVID WELNA: The breadth and depth of Ted Kennedy's long Senate career came into sharp focus one day in late May 2008. It was the day his fellow senators learned he had brain cancer. One by one, Republicans as well as Democrats rose to praise their stricken colleague. Among them was an old friend of Kennedy's, Virginia Republican John Warner.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): How many times have we been privileged in this chamber to listen to our colleague speak from that back row? He really doesn't need the microphone. His voice resonates to the rafters in this chamber, and it carries forth.

WELNA: Indeed, six months earlier, Kennedy had rumbled the rafters of the Senate chamber, arguing for troop withdrawals from Iraq while at the same, time comparing the cost of that war to education causes he'd long championed.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Just think of this, that for every month this goes on, Mr. President, we could provide head start for every young person that needs it. And just think of this, Mr. President: For two of those five years, if we had the resources for two of those five years, we could have rebuilt every public school in this country. Doesn't that matter?

WELNA: It was a classic Kennedy floor speech, brimming with righteous outrage and taking direct aim at his colleagues' consciences. Here's Majority Leader Harry Reid the day Kennedy's illness became public.

Senator HARRY REID (Senate Majority Leader; Democrat, Nevada): We've heard this lion roar on the Senate floor on so many occasions. His work ethic is unsurpassed.

WELNA: Was all that roaring done for effect, or was it genuine? Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd, who's been one of Kennedy's closest friends in the Senate, says he's heard Kennedy roar when no one else was within earshot.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): He roars anyway. He just likes roaring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: But in an interview before Kennedy's death, Dodd hastened to add that his old friend was also a master of subtle persuasion, a man willing to cross the aisle to make deals if that's what it took to move a bill forward.

Sen. DODD: And obviously, he was a very good legislator, understands the art of compromise, not on principles. And he's a person of deep passion, has been of convictions. And so he brings that to the legislative process. That's why he's a good negotiator. If you don't come with some principles, you can concede too much and lose the ability to have an impact on the outcome.

WELNA: Kennedy's legislative legacy is vast; much of it arose from his chairing for years the committee that overseas health, education and labor. There was the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Direct Student Loan Program, the National Teacher Quorum, and to the consternation of many Democrats and teachers' unions, the No Child Left Behind bill, championed by President George W. Bush. Two years ago, here's how the former president sized up his occasional ally.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Senator Kennedy is one of the best legislative senators there is. He can get the job done.

WELNA: Kennedy joined forces once more with the former president in pushing for an immigration law overhaul three years ago. While President Bush touted the need for a guest worker program, Kennedy focused on millions of immigrants already in the U.S. illegally. But when it came to the war in Iraq, the senator and the former president parted ways. Kennedy was among a minority of Senate Democrats who voted against authorizing that war, which he called a fraud cooked up in Texas. A year after the Iraq invasion, Kennedy railed against the former president's bid for re-election.

Sen. KENNEDY: He is the problem, not the solution. Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam, and this country needs a new president.

WELNA: The Senate seat Kennedy was first elected to had been held by his brother John before he was elected president. A half year after JFK's assassination, the younger Kennedy was asked in England how he'd been received as a 30-year-old freshman senator. His answer reveals a modest, almost shy deference to his Senate elders.

Sen. KENNEDY: The members of the Senate were extremely kind and hospitable to me, extremely helpful. And I would hope that after a year in the Senate that I've been able to pull my share of the weight of the work there. I hope so.

WELNA: Kennedy's initial posture in the Senate was to lie low. After 18 months on the job, he'd made only one floor speech. It was on civil rights, an issue he called dear to him and his recently slain brother. Former Iowa Democratic Senator John Culver served as an aide for Kennedy at the time. He recalls Kennedy being a quick study, both on how to get along and how to get things done in the Senate.

Mr. JOHN CULVER (Former Democratic Senator, Iowa): When he went in there, those older members really looked at him with great suspicion, if not cynicism. But he disabused them of that view and attitude. And then quite early on, they turned to respect and admire the way he accommodated himself to the rules of the Senate, the mores of the Senate. And that, in turn, enhanced his ability to get a lot of things done legislatively, and they were more inclined to work with him and respect him.

WELNA: Culver says Kennedy's gift was to find common ground with would-be adversaries. Instead of simply hunkering down with fellow Democrats, he strived to form bipartisan alliances on key bills. He was an unabashed liberal who nonetheless had Republicans among his closest friends.

Mitch McConnell is the leader of the Senate Republicans. Here's how McConnell described Kennedy the day his illness became known.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): He is indeed one of the most important figures to ever serve in this body in our history, and Republican senators recognize that as well.

WELNA: Ted Kennedy, in the end, was a man whose true home was the U.S. Senate. Like his two assassinated brothers, he, too, had sought the presidency. But he gave up that quest at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York. It was there that Kennedy closed the curtains on Camelot and rededicated his life to truly become the lion of the Senate.

Sen. KENNEDY: And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now: I am a part of all that I have met. Too much is taken, much abides. That which we are, we are. One equal temper of heroic hearts, strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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