Sen. Kennedy Spent Life Defending 'Little Guy'

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Senator Edward Kennedy came from one of America's wealthiest and most privileged families. But he was one of the most vocal advocates for the poor and underprivileged. The senator's friends and colleagues say it was no political act — that he truly empathized with those facing hard times.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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

Senator Edward Kennedy came from one of America's wealthiest and most privileged families. He was also one of the most vocal advocates for the poor. The senator's friends and colleagues say it was no political act. And we have a report this morning from NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER: It was a familiar sound on the Senate floor: Ted Kennedy's powerful voice rising in outrage at what he saw as another injustice, like Congress's repeated failure to raise the minimum wage for hourly workers.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Nine years they've waited, but not the members of the United States Senate. Thirty thousand dollars we've increased our salary, and nine years we've refused to provide an increase to the men and women that are working on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

FESSLER: That was classic Ted Kennedy, defending the little guy, whether it was for health care, civil rights, immigration, education. And it wasn't just for public consumption that he expressed righteous indignation.

Political consultant Bob Shrum recalls how he almost got his head bitten off during Kennedy's reelection campaign in 1994 against Republican Mitt Romney. Shrum had given this political advice: Don't oppose Romney's plan to stop welfare for women who have children out of wedlock.

Mr. BOB SHRUM (Political Consultant): And he said I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to get reelected by taking food out of the mouths of poor kids. I don't need the job that much. They need the food. He was genuinely angry.

FESSLER: Shrum says it was part of Kennedy's deep philosophical belief.

Mr. SHRUM: I think Ted Kennedy always had a very strong feeling that government existed for people who didn't have power and didn't have privilege and didn't have influence, that it somehow or other was a balancing mechanism to achieve a measure of social justice and opportunity and equality.

Sister LIGUORI ROSSNER (Jubilee Soup Kitchen): I do. I have Senator Kennedy's picture on the wall, had it since he's been here in the early '80s.

FESSLER: Sister Liguori Rossner runs the Jubilee Soup Kitchen in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Sister ROSSNER: He wanted to retrace the steps of his brother's poverty tour. And since we were a part of Appalachia, he decided he would come here.

FESSLER: Sister Liguori says it meant a lot that Kennedy was so interested in the needy people served at her kitchen. But what she remembers most is the way he listened.

Sister ROSSNER: I never met anybody that paid so much attention to what you were saying. He gave his full attention to me. And then we had a woman that was on welfare, and it was amazing. He paid exactly the attention he gave me to her.

FESSLER: The senator's friends say that was Ted Kennedy all the way, that he couldn't pass a child in a wheelchair without stopping to talk.

Former Senator John Culver of Iowa met Kennedy in college and became a lifelong friend. Culver thinks that some of the deep feeling that Kennedy had for the plights of others came from a painful time in his childhood when, as a young boy who loved to be around his large family, he was sent away to boarding school.

Mr. JOHN CULVER (Former Democratic Senator, Iowa): There was a - periods where he was very lonely and sad and unhappy and homesick. But I do think it developed sensitivity. It developed empathy.

FESSLER: Culver says this was combined with a strong sense of obligation, which was instilled in all the Kennedys by their father Joseph, that they owed something back to society for their great wealth and privilege. Culver says Ted Kennedy told him how his father sat him down one day and revealed that he had a trust fund that would take care of him for life.

Mr. CULVER: And he could do one of two things. He could waste it and spend it, or he could do something worthwhile and serious about his life and help some other people.

FESSLER: Culver says Kennedy clearly chose the latter. Whether it was nutrition programs for poor women and children, low-income energy assistance, rights for the disabled, strengthening the Head Start program, Kennedy was out in front. And if he lost a legislative battle one year, he'd keep plugging away, as he did with the minimum wage, until he succeeded.

Unidentified Woman: An act entitled the Edward M. Kennedy Service America Act…

FESSLER: So it was fitting earlier this year that the Senate named legislation to expand the AmeriCorps national service program after Senator Kennedy, and then gave their ailing colleague a lengthy standing ovation.

(Soundbite of applause)

FESSLER: This was another one of Kennedy's many passions. He wanted others to have a chance to help those in need. Bob Greenstein heads the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group that promotes anti-poverty programs. He says what made Kennedy so special was that he knew how to compromise without abandoning his beliefs. He says millions of lives were improved as a result.

Mr. BOB GREENSTEIN (Executive Director, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): He was an idealist who, in terms of working the congressional system, was a paramount pragmatist - a paramount pragmatist in the service of his idealism. And he was damn good at it.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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