The Kennedys' Most Natural Politician

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Sen. Edward Kennedy's funeral Mass takes place Saturday in Boston. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR News Analyst Juan Williams about the Kennedy legacy, and to NPR's Robert Smith, who is covering the event in Boston.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Ms. KARA KENNEDY: Justice shall flourish…

SIMON: I beg your pardon. The funeral, of course, is under way this morning for U.S. Senator Edward Moore Kennedy. We're joined now by NPR's Robert Smith, who is outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston, where the Mass is being celebrated. Robert, thank you for being with us.

ROBERT SMITH: You're welcome.

SIMON: And so many famous faces we've seen inside the Basilica: Obamas, Clintons, Carters, Kennedys, Bushes, Yo-Yo Ma, Placido Domingo, senators, governors, mayors. What have you noticed? What are you seeing outside, for that matter, in this neighborhood church?

SMITH: Well, you could go on for 10 minutes. There was 79 senators and former senators. In fact, the Senate and House delegation pulled up in six giant charter buses in front of the church here. In the actual neighborhood, it's so locked down that very few members of the public have made it out here in the rain.

There's just a few on the corner standing by, but mostly the scene is inside, where the parish priest tells me that it is a very ordinary, Catholic service going on in there. It just happens to be staffed with extraordinary people.

SIMON: President Obama, of course, is going to deliver Senator Kennedy's eulogy, and as we're speaking with you now, quite a lot has been going on. There seems to be a music performance going on at the moment by the Tanglewood Choir. But earlier, Kara Kennedy, the senator's niece, read a psalm, and we want to listen to a little bit of that.

Ms. KENNEDY: Justice shall flourish in his time and fullness of peace forever.

Unidentified People: Justice shall flourish in his time and fullness of peace forever.

Ms. KENNEDY: The mountain shall yield peace for the people and the hills justice. He shall defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the poor.

Unidentified People: Justice shall flourish…

SIMON: Now, of course, Robert, there was some surprise expressed that the Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica is the scene of this funeral Mass, but it means a lot to Senator Kennedy's family, doesn't it?

SMITH: It does. I mean, I think a lot of people expected this service to happen in the big cathedral in downtown Boston, but in fact he chose this beautiful and rather large basilica but out of the way. It's in this Mission Hill neighborhood. It's an up-and-coming neighborhood.

It used to be plagued with gangs and crime, and this church was the place where Senator Kennedy came about six years ago, when his daughter Kara had a diagnosis of lung cancer. And he would come every day and pray for her. And later on, when he was diagnosed with cancer, he came and prayed for himself.

It's a place of healing. There's a shrine there that's supposed to provide solace and healing, and it meant a lot to him, and it was his request that his funeral be held up here.

SIMON: NPR's Robert Smith in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: You're welcome.

SIMON: And NPR news analyst Juan Williams joins us. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What's been going through your mind as we've been watching this funeral Mass?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, you have to understand that Senator Kennedy and his widow, Vicki, made some selections here. And so they chose the readings that you just heard a selection from when his daughter Kara read, but they also chose the Book of Wisdom for reading, and from there we heard that the soul of the just will be in the hands of God. And there are continued references to service to the poor, to the needy, to the afflicted, the notion the Gospel reading was about - you know, seeing God's face in the hungry, the stranger, those in need. And I think that is the message that Ted Kennedy wanted to send in this funeral, even as we just heard from Robert in the selection of the basilica as the place of this funeral.

So as we, you know, await word from President Obama, I think that the whole message is one about service. It's easy to imagine, if you think about all the agonies that Ted Kennedy suffered in his life - loss of his two brothers to assassination…

SIMON: And oldest brother…

WILLIAMS: Oldest brother…

SIMON: …got killed in the war…


SIMON: …and for that matter, his sister Kathleen…


SIMON: …died during the war.

WILLIAMS: And to think of it - him as sort of the end of the line of this tremendous legacy. You could have seen - Scott, would it have surprised you if Ted Kennedy had become a recluse, if he had pulled away from public life, if he'd said, you know, it's just too much pain, too much agony? But to the contrary, he led a life of public service. And I think in the readings that we have seen thus far, he wants to communicate the importance of public service, that even he as a man of great wealth, of stature in American life, one who had undergone all these tragedies, chose to serve the American people, and he wants to be remembered in that way.

SIMON: I think it does no dishonor to the memory and the legacy of Senator Kennedy to talk a little politics this morning. He was - his politics was bred in the bone when it came to Teddy Kennedy. He was often considered the most accomplished politician, in fact, of his family.

And it's not clear - here you have an important vote coming up on health care overhaul, on an issue that was of prime importance to him, and it's not clear that Massachusetts is going to have two votes in the Senate - or at least they would have to change the state law in Massachusetts. Now, tell us about some of the consternation that's going on.

WILLIAMS: Well, just before he died, just days before he died, he sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat in Massachusetts, asking that the law be changed so that you no longer would have a special election - now scheduled for January or February - but instead have the governor appoint an interim senator for the state of Massachusetts. Now…

SIMON: We should explain, a few years ago the legislature thought having a special election was a nifty idea because the governor was…

WILLIAMS: Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Senator Kennedy thought it was a nifty idea too, because he didn't want his seat to go to a Republican. But at this critical moment, the absence of Ted Kennedy means the Democrats don't have a filibuster-proof majority. They don't have that 60 votes. It means that you're losing, potentially, a key vote on health care legislation, as you mentioned, and so Senator Kennedy wanted the special appointment.

What we're hearing now from Governor Patrick is that he's thinking yes, there should be a special appointment on an interim basis but also the special election, and you're seeing the Democrat majority in the state legislature in Massachusetts coming to that position. And so it looks like there's going to be some sort of interim appointment that will keep the Democratic majority filibuster-proof in the U.S. Senate.

SIMON: Somebody asked me the other day if in fact the legislature voted that way, wouldn't that seem to be just sheer partisan politics?

WILLIAMS: Gee, whiz.

SIMON: Coming from Chicago, I gently reminded them, that's not a drawback in Massachusetts. That's kind of how life goes on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But in addition to that, obviously it could be a very important vote, a single vote, in an issue this closely contested - or could be this closely contested. What does the debate miss by not having Ted Kennedy's voice around?

WILLIAMS: Well, you've heard Ted Kennedy's voice over these NPR airwaves, and you know it's a deep, booming voice, quite singular. You know that the head of white hair and his large head and piercing eyes made him a unique persona, and of course all that goes with the Kennedy name.

So when it comes to something like health care, no one else had the ability to wrangle votes like Ted Kennedy, to say to conservative Democrats far from Massachusetts, we need you on this one, we can make deals later on, but we need you here right now. He was even good at doing that with conservative Republicans, some of whom are in attendance at the funeral today.

So when you lose a Ted Kennedy, it's hard to replace that kind of moral persuasion and political acumen in one person. He knew the parliamentary rules, but he also had expertise on the issue. Again, he really was well-schooled in the way of politics.

SIMON: And for that matter, on health care overall, generations of commitment on that issue.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

SIMON: He can remember when he talked about it to Richard Nixon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLIAMS: That's right, and had some success, if you think back to it, which is pretty incredible - again, another sign that he was the son of a saloon keeper in Boston.

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks so much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott.

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