Kennedy Remembered As Civil Rights Champion Over nearly five decades, Sen. Edward Kennedy assumed an important role in framing the nation's civil rights laws and leading the opposition to Supreme Court nominees he viewed as hostile to civil rights.
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Kennedy Remembered As Civil Rights Champion

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Kennedy Remembered As Civil Rights Champion

Kennedy Remembered As Civil Rights Champion

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

We're looking this morning at some of the legacies of Senator Edward Kennedy. The last few years of his life were typical for a man considered one of the most influential politicians who never became president. Ted Kennedy was a major voice in education changes proposed by President Bush. He was also a major voice opposing the Iraq war and other policies of President Bush. Elsewhere in today's program, we're hearing about Kennedy's crusades for the poor. And right now we'll look at his fights over civil rights for minorities, women, immigrants and the disabled. He was the man who framed many laws. He was also an opponent of Supreme Court nominees he viewed as hostile to civil rights.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Perhaps it was the NINA signs his grandfather told him about in Boston: No Irish Need Apply. Perhaps it was the moral legacy left unfinished by his assassinated brothers. Whatever the reason, Ted Kennedy long identified with those who are left out and left behind. Over the course of almost a half-century in the Senate, Kennedy would lead the fight for enactment of a truly astonishing list of civil rights laws.

The first battles came in 1965, when he fought to abolish the poll tax and as chairman of the then-obscure Immigration Subcommittee rewrote the immigration laws to do away with the preference for Europeans, a move that effectively enabled Hispanics, Asians and Africans to come to the America. He did not always accomplish what he wanted to on the first try, often accepting a small piece, then returning to finish the job years or even decades later.

And when the Supreme Court began interpreting laws to undercut civil rights protections, Kennedy stepped in to undo those decisions. In 1987, for example, after three years of work, Kennedy, overturning a Supreme Court decision and overriding a presidential veto, won passage of a law to ban federal funds to institutions that discriminate. Four years later, he won passage of another civil rights law that reversed no fewer than seven Supreme Court decisions and for the first time provided damages for the victims of discrimination.

Ralph Neas worked with Kennedy, first as a staffer for Republican senators and then as head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Mr. RALPH NEAS (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights): I've never met or worked with anyone who knew the process better, the players better, the politics better, the substance better. No one puts it all together like Ted Kennedy. No one intuitively can feel the rhythms of a legislative process like Ted Kennedy.

TOTENBERG: And by all accounts, nobody worked harder either. Each night, he would take home a heavy briefcase filled with notebooks and memos. The next morning, the staff would arrive at Kennedy's home at about 7:00 to find him sitting in his study with notebooks strewn about, pages marked up and dog-eared, and the senator primed for discussion. At night he often would invite teams of scholars, experts or advocates over for dinner, and the conversation would last late into the evening. Women's rights advocate Judith Lichtman.

Ms. JUDITH LICHTMAN (Women's Rights Advocate): By the time you left Senator Kennedy's house, he knew everything that you knew. He had truly drained your brain.

TOTENBERG: Ironically, Kennedy, a liberal lightning rod for conservative fundraisers, was in fact the quintessential consensus builder on legislation behind the scenes. When he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his chief counsel would meet every day over breakfast with the Republican counsel to figure out the day's agenda and to make sure that senators from both parties knew what was going to happen and how each senator would react. Kennedy's guy was Stephen Breyer, now a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice STEPHEN BREYER (U.S. Supreme Court): Kennedy's idea throughout, he liked to get results. He is result-oriented, and he'd tell us don't worry so much about credit. Credit is something where, if you succeed, there will be plenty of credit to go around, and if you fail, who wants the credit?

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Kennedy's relations with Republicans were so good that he managed to beat back a filibuster and get Breyer confirmed for a Court of Appeals judgeship in 1980 after Ronald Reagan won the presidential election. He was a tireless and skilled negotiator, but even his good humor and patience had its limits. In 1989, for instance, after negotiating with key Republicans and Bush Cabinet officials over the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kennedy faced his last obstacle, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.

With all the key players sitting at a long table, Sununu, apparently without provocation, lost his temper at the top staffer for the Disabilities Subcommittee, Bobby Silverstein.

Mr. BOBBY SILVERSTEIN (Former Staff Member, Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy): Governor Sununu started screaming at the top of his lungs at me, and then Senator Kennedy started to turn red and he just at the top of his lungs said to Governor Sununu, don't you ever, ever talk to staff that way. You want to yell, you have a position, you talk to me that way.

TOTENBERG: Kennedy's outburst changed the dynamic in the room, according to those who were there. Instead of being a group divided, they were a group united in admonition of Sununu. A deal was soon struck.

If politics is the art of compromise, it is, on some occasions, also the willingness to fight in the face of overwhelming odds. It's hard to remember today, but when President Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, almost nobody thought the nomination could be defeated. Within hours, Kennedy went to the Senate floor to make a famous, and controversial, speech.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, and school children could not be taught about evolution.

TOTENBERG: Republicans, like then-assistant Republican leader Alan Simpson, were stunned.

Senator ALAN SIMPSON (Republican, Wyoming): I went to him afterwards and I said, Hey, pal, that was wretched excess, that was beyond belief.

TOTENBERG: But Kennedy's speech did what he wanted it to. Former Kennedy staffer Jeff Blattner…

Mr. JEFF BLATTNER (Former Kennedy Staffer): Tactically, the speech was intended to, in essence, freeze the debate, to alert people in the country that this was going to be a matter of huge controversy, and to give senators a reason to think twice before saying something favorable about Judge Bork.

TOTENBERG: In the weeks that followed, Kennedy would use that pause he created to mobilize grass-roots activists, Democratic contributors - everyone from African-American ministers to labor leaders.

During the August recess on Cape Cod, he worked the phones constantly, immersed himself in Bork's writings, and bombarded his staff with requests for additional information. As usual, he brought in teams of experts for discussions. And he did something quite unusual: he got his staff to compile a book of some of what he considered Bork's most extreme writings and speeches. Then he personally delivered the book to about 15 key senators and asked them to read it.

Republicans saw Kennedy's actions as a distortion of the process. They started using Bork as a verb — to be Borked — meaning an unfair attack on someone whose ideas you disagree with. Former Senator Simpson…

Sen. SIMPSON: Ted told me later, he said, I didn't do in Bork. Bork did in Bork. And there was some truth to that.

TOTENBERG: Kennedy staffer Jeff Blattner.

Mr. BLATTNER: I believe Senator Kennedy's feeling after Bork nomination was defeated was that the country and the Senate had undergone a referendum on what the Constitution meant, and that important constitutional values of equality and liberty and human dignity had won.

TOTENBERG: As Blattner observes, Kennedy's battle against Bork involved no compromise.

Mr. BLATTNER: He wasn't afraid to lose, and that's why he won. It's rare in a legislator to find someone who is both adept at forging compromise and adept at pushing the Senate to take a moral stand, even when it's an unpopular one. And it's that combination of qualities that really made him truly unique.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: We're glad you're with us this morning on this public radio station. And as you check news headlines throughout the day at the new, you can also find more coverage of the life of Senator Ted Kennedy.

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