NPR News Special: Remembering Ted Kennedy Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has died after falling ill with brain cancer. Friends and colleagues of the late senator talk about his influence in passing social legislation, his advocacy for civil and women's rights, and his life-long goal to reform health care.
NPR logo

NPR News Special: Remembering Ted Kennedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
NPR News Special: Remembering Ted Kennedy

NPR News Special: Remembering Ted Kennedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is special coverage. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

An era in American politics ended late last night. Senator Edward Kennedy died before realizing his final goal: a major health care overhaul that he called the cause of his life.

Still, he leaves a legacy that spans five decades: legislation on civil rights, education and health care. Ted Kennedy will also be remembered as the Kennedy who outlived all of his older brothers, who lost a presidential election and was haunted by the events at Chappaquiddick.

President Obama today called Ted Kennedy the greatest U.S. senator of our time, and the Kennedy family, in a statement, said: We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever.

Today, we will look at the political legacy; the personal legacy, the good and the bad, of the late Senate Edward Kennedy. What are your memories of Ted Kennedy? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is

In a few minutes, we'll talk with former Republican Senator John Sununu and with Congressman Barney Frank, Democrat from Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts, but I want to start with NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin.

Ken, we're just learning now that Kennedy will be buried next to his brothers at Arlington National Cemetery. This really drives home the import of this day.

KEN RUDIN: Oh, there's no question. You know, it's not something that we didn't expect. He was - Senator Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in May of 2008. So it's not that we didn't see this day coming, unlike with his brothers, who were assassinated at the peak of their careers. But in many ways, Ted Kennedy was at the peak of his career, too, because the legislation that he had fought for for so many years - as a matter of fact, he first introduced health-care legislation in 1969 - this legislation was coming closer than ever before, and yet he was not a part of it, and it was just his absence was sorely missed.

SEABROOK: This last year. So he's been gone about a year now, for the better part of a year. And it has been almost painful to watch the people working on this, Christopher Dodd, taking over his place on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, working on this legislation without him.

RUDIN: Well, I mean, I don't know if it's - it's certainly painful to not see him there, just like this is the first time since he's been in the Senate that he was not part of a Supreme Court nomination because he gave up his seat on the Judiciary Committee.

So there's a lot of things, a lot of historical things, that have happened this year - of course, I was talking about the Sonia Sotomayor nomination - there have been historical things that Ted Kennedy always was a part of and has been absent from this in the last year or so.

SEABROOK: And just as a quick overview, we're really talking about two legacies here, in a way. There's sort of the young Ted Kennedy, that legacy that ended up in Chappaquiddick; and the more mature Ted Kennedy, who became the lion of the Senate, a fall-and-rise story.

RUDIN: You know, he is the third-longest-serving senator in history after Robert Byrd, who's still around, and Strom Thurmond; and yet for much of those years, those decades in the Senate, Ted Kennedy was long thought of as a playboy, as a lightweight, as irresponsible.

Of course, there was Chappaquiddick in 1969, but it was also - there was also his partying with his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, in Florida in 1991. So the new Ted Kennedy, the person who realized he would never be president, the person who realized he put not only presidential politics behind him, but the carousing behind him, and once he did that, he became a lawmaker's lawmaker. And by doing so, he gained the respect - now of course, Republicans love to, you know, lampoon him as the ultimate, ultimate liberal - his picture was always on Republican fundraising letters - but Kennedy made a point of forging coalitions with Republicans. And there are people like Orrin Hatch, John McCain, true conservatives, who really respect the relationship they had with him.

SEABROOK: Let's bring in our next guest. Joining us now in Studio 3A is Thomas Oliphant. He is a correspondent and columnist for the Boston Globe, where he followed Ted Kennedy's career for almost four decades. Thomas Oliphant, welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS OLIPHANT (Correspondent, Columnist, Boston Globe): Thank you.

SEABROOK: Thank you for joining us. You said earlier today, I think you said, you quoted him as saying if you get serious, you can have a lot of fun.

Mr. OLIPHANT: That's the whole idea. All of them, beginning with President Kennedy, anyway, loved the game, but it was always a means to an end. What was lovable about the game was that it's the grease for the wheels in the system that make it work. And Kennedy always - I mean, what he actually would say is, you know, if you're just interested in celebrity or personality or that kind of stuff, you know, the rope-lines over there - you know, you might have fun, but that's - the rope-lines over there.

You want to really work on stuff, then it's fun. And the first taste I got, at the end of the 1960s, was health care. But so many other rides, god, everything from Northern Ireland to nuclear weapons, women's rights, gay rights.

I disagree a little bit with the assessments of him in the '60s and '70s. You can see the elements of greatness. There are things from the '60s and '70s that are alive today and part of the legacy - but what a ride.

SEABROOK: There is so much to talk about here. We want to make sure we get in some memories from our callers, as well. We're taking your memories at 800-989-TALK, and before we go any further, let's just check in with one caller. We have Eileen(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi there.

EILEEN (Caller): Hello. Well, I just wanted to share a memory. Actually, it is from the '60s, and I was a freshman at the University of Georgia in spring of 1964. And John Kennedy had been scheduled to speak to the students there, and of course, he could not. He had been assassinated, you know, the November before.

So Ted Kennedy was sent to speak for him. And at that time, most of us did not know anything about Ted Kennedy except that he was John Kennedy's younger brother, and actually, it was unfortunately most of the students there were very hostile because they had been hostile to John Kennedy. And so there were very few of us who were - all of us were Democrats, but there were very few of us who were not Southern Democrats. And anyway, Ted Kennedy came to speak, and I didn't know anything about him.

I was very upset, of course, that John Kennedy wasn't there, and we didn't know what to expect. And he was very young then. I mean, we were younger, but he must have been about 31, and we didn't expect much from this. We thought it would just be something to take the place of the speech we were supposed to have from the president.

SEABROOK: And what did you find?

EILEEN: Well, it was amazing. You know, I really do not remember what he said specifically, but it was of the nature that we couldn't give up the idealism that his brother had had, and that while it was profoundly sad for him to have to replace him, that he expected us to take up his banner and so forth.

But the thing was, it was a very hostile crowd. And so hostile, I have to say - I mean, where they were coming from that one of the memories that I have of hearing that John Kennedy was killed was when I was coming out of a class, and some boys drove by and gave a rebel yell, celebrating that Kennedy had just been shot.

So it was a very, you know, crowd that didn't really have any - didn't like him at all, and yet he captured the crowd. And the way he spoke, which was directly and to us and not, you know, just in clichés or some kind of political-hack type of speech, but he spoke to everyone directly so that nobody could or nobody did - there were no cat calls. Everybody was silent through his speech, and I think he captured the crowd.

SEABROOK: I think this - Eileen, I think this is actually a theme throughout - in the story today of Ted Kennedy's legacy, that he took up that mantle for his brother from the very beginning.

Mr. OLIPHANT: I can guarantee to the caller one sentence that I'm sure he uttered that day in Athens, that was sort of at the root of the appeal that all three of them had to young people. It's not simply the Peace Corps. It's the way they dealt with young people, and President Kennedy started it in the campaign in 1960, but Bob Kennedy used the line, Edward Kennedy used it his whole life.

He'd look at an audience, like the one in Athens, and say look, all of us can make a difference, and each of us should try. And that call to service, for some reason at that time in America, resonated.

Now, the caller mentioned the University of Georgia, which is one of the important places where desegregation occurred in higher education. He kept doing appearances like that throughout his career. One of my favorites was about 15 years later. He went back to the University of Mississippi, where there had been a riot when James Meredith was… And there he was, in a way, writing finis to a chapter in the civil rights movement's history under the sponsorship of one of segregation's most important leaders, Jim Eastland, the senator from Mississippi.

And picking up that standard, which the caller experienced, is something that went on all the way through his life. It isn't - a lot of people don't remember this, but the health care proposal, after the '68 campaign, was something that Bob Kennedy had talked about some during those amazing 97 days before he was murdered, but he had not gotten around yet, at the time of the assassination, to fleshing out the details of a national health proposal but that he had promised to in the campaign. And that was the first thing that Kennedy picked up in the aftermath of his brother's murder that resulted in the beginning of this 39-year journey the following year.

SEABROOK: We're here with Thomas Oliphant and with Ken Rudin, both with long political stories to tell about Ted Kennedy. We want to make sure we get to our listeners, that NPR has confirmed that Ted Kennedy will lie in repose at the Kennedy Library in Boston. We don't have dates on that yet, but we do also know that the - President Obama has ordered that the flag of the United States be flown at half-staff until sunset, August 30. That's at all U.S. embassies, at all public buildings and so on.

Senator Ted Kennedy died late last night. We're talking about his legacy this hour. Vice President Joe Biden fought back tears this morning as he spoke about his friend and colleague and the way he'll remember him.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: He changed the political landscape for almost a half a century. I just hope - we say blithely, you know, we'll remember what he did. I just hope we remember how he treated other people.

SEABROOK: Vice President Biden. Coming up, we'll talk with John Sununu. He worked with Senator Kennedy to pass the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, and later on, Congressman Barney Frank. I'm Andrea Seabrook. This is special coverage from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: From NPR News in Washington, this is special coverage. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Senator Edward Kennedy died last night at the age of 77. Friends and colleagues here in the United States are mourning the loss of the liberal lion. Friends overseas are grieving, as well.

In Ireland, the country where his ancestors emigrated during the 19th century, he's remembered for his work on the peace process there. Irish politician John Hume remembered his efforts.

Mr. JOHN HUME (Politician): Ted Kennedy was a great friend of mine and a great friend of Ireland as a whole, and a particular friend of our peace process because right on his agenda from the very beginning were peace and justice in Northern Ireland.

SEABROOK: John Hume on Ted Kennedy, and we want to hear your memories of Sir Edward Kennedy. You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our email address is

Let's first go to the phones quickly. Joe in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOE (Caller): Hi, everybody. It's tough to be upbeat on a day like today, but I'm remembering all of his service. In fact, that's why I'm calling. I graduated high school in 1980, and I can remember the convention speech that he gave, and it was quite inspiring.

I heard little snippets of it earlier in the show, in the preview, and it kind of inspired me for my various forms of, you know, community service through the years - whether it be, you know, green-oriented or getting recycling or stopping dumping off the Jersey shore or preserving the pine barrens, whatever the local issue happened to be, or even with kids and, you know, the March of Dimes and T-ball with the Boys' and Girls' Club, you know, various things, just, you know, getting involved with the community. And, you know, you reminded me of that, too, with the speech that he gave or a variation of the speech and the line to young people about service, and everybody can, and it might be good if we all tried, you know.

SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call, Joe. That's what we're talking about, Senator Kennedy's legacy, today, and let's fast-forward, Ken Rudin, Tom Oliphant, to 1980. This was a pivotal moment in the story that we're telling today. Set the stage for us, Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Well, first of all, there was a time, once upon a time, that President Carter was not a popular incumbent, and there were a lot of Democrats who felt that Ted Kennedy could have the nomination if he wanted it. Tip O'Neill was quoted as saying if Kennedy's going to run, he has the nomination.

Two things happened to Ted Kennedy on the way to the Democratic nomination that never happened. One was the 1979 disastrous interview with CBS' Roger Mudd. He asked, basically, an innocuous question, why do you want to be president, and Ted Kennedy's inability to answer that question coherently, really set the stage for a very difficult campaign by Ted Kennedy. Plus the fact that at the end of 1979, Iranians took Americans hostage in Tehran, and President Carter - a lot of people rallied around President Carter.

So he had the benefit of the doubt being the president, and Ted Kennedy had trouble trying to engage Carter, who said look, I'm not going to do partisan politics when our guys are being held hostage.

So Kennedy really never made a - got traction out of that 1980 campaign. Now, Joe who called from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania's one of those states where Ted Kennedy did beat Jimmy Carter. New York is another big state but ultimately, the highlight of Kennedy's campaign that year was not in any victory. It was actually the concession speech in Madison Square Garden that summer.

SEABROOK: Tom Oliphant, anything to add?

Mr. OLIPHANT: Yeah, just for more color. As Kennedy has looked back over the years, particularly to that weird summer of '79 - it's 30 years, really, when Jimmy Carter went up to Camp David and hid for a few weeks and came back and made a speech about the energy crisis and then fired his whole Cabinet.

Kennedy, in that period, there were all these people privately who would come up to him in the cloak room, members of the House - you've got to do it. You've got to run this guy, you know, etcetera, etcetera. And for about the only time in his life, he listened to them rather than make his own, independent assessment. 'Cause sure enough, within a second of declaring, and within - as Ken properly mentioned, the hostage crisis is the great what if. I mean, he was shut out of the news for probably three months after that thing started. But only five people in Congress ever surfaced to support his presidential candidacy. And yet, to show you what kind of a guy he was in this game, he campaigned on behalf of several of these people who had privately urged him to run and then were nowhere to be found when he did. Evan Bayh's father, the former senator from Indiana that Dan Quayle beat, Birch Bayh.

The late Harrison Williams, facing ethical and legal problems, was another senator from New Jersey. The guy was most incapable of holding a grudge. And throughout the spring and summer and fall, one of the things that I recall so vividly is just being amazed at how Kennedy would show up for all these guys who kept goading him into the race and then hid under their beds once he was in.

RUDIN: And the irony is that Democrats for the longest time wanted Kennedy to run. They begged him to run in '72. They begged him to run in '76. The irony is that in 1980, when he decided to run, it was against a sitting member of his own party, the president of his own party, whereas in '72, '76, he wouldn't have had to take on his own president.

SEABROOK: Perhaps it was this, I don't know, kindness, lack of political knife-stabbing that led him to have such an incredible legislative ability.

Former Governor John Sununu joins us now from Washington. As chief of staff to the first President Bush, Sununu and Kennedy worked together to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Welcome to the program, Governor.

Mr. JOHN SUNUNU (Former Governor, Republican, New Hampshire): Thank you very much. It's not a happy day for those of us that knew Senator Kennedy, but it's an important day to talk a little bit about - and for me, an opportunity to talk across party lines, so to speak - but acknowledge the contributions the senator made to good policy.

SEABROOK: It was one of his great strengths, was it not, to stick to his ideals but yet work across party lines so effectively?

Mr. SUNUNU: Yeah, he was, you know, sometimes the word pragmatist is used pejoratively, but in the nicest sense of that word, he understood what could be achieved and then worked to get as much of it as he could in the negotiations for legislation. And we were probably as far apart politically as you can be on the spectrum, he was certainly a classic - and very proud of the fact that he was a liberal.

I obviously come from the extremely conservative side of the world, and yet as chief of staff when President Bush asked that I sit down and spend time with Senator Kennedy who was championing the Americans with Disabilities Act, as was President Bush, and the Civil Rights Bill, which had to be put together in '91 to take care of changes that had taken place. I spent a lot of time, I mean literally hours, with the senator across the table, arguing about the details of that legislation, trying to get something that was acceptable and met what he perceived had to be in the legislation and what President Bush wanted to do.

And the surprising thing is a liberal and a conservative set of views were able to be homogenized into a piece of legislation, into those two pieces of legislation, that I think people recognize as being two great pieces of legislation.

SEABROOK: Sounds like a bygone era, almost.

Mr. SUNUNU: I'm not sure of that. I know - what made it, what made his contributions so effective is that he always came prepared. He had done his homework. He spent the time to understand the details, and that did two things.

One, it made him a formidable opponent, if you will, in the process; but two, it meant that he knew enough about it that you could get to a result, and people don't recognize today that if all you're doing is standing on a bumper-sticker slogan, you can't find compromise because bumper stickers can't be compromised. Compromise comes in the detail, and I don't mean compromise that weakens positions but compromise that really reflects the strengths of two different positions. And that's what I think Senator Kennedy was able to bring to the negotiations and made the difference.

SEABROOK: Former Governor John Sununu joined us from his office in Washington. He's now chairman of the Republican Party in New Hampshire. Thank you, Governor.

Mr. SUNUNU: Well, it's a pleasure.

SEABROOK: Senator Kennedy was known for being one of the few who could talk openly and persuasively to both sides of the Senate, as we have just heard. He was also respected for protecting his liberal values. Representative Barney Frank joins us now. He's chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and he represents Massachusetts' Fourth District in Ted Kennedy's home state. Welcome to the program, Congressman.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Thank you.

SEABROOK: Senator Kennedy could cross party lines, but he also knew how to stand his ground, did he not?

Rep. FRANK: Yes, and the two are related. One of the things that you need to be an effective negotiator is the confidence of the people on whose behalf you are negotiating.

A labor leader who's got a shaky position with the local, isn't well able to make the compromises. To get an effective compromise, you need a couple of things. First of all, you have to understand the other side's position. You have to understand, what are their strongest and weakest points from their own standpoint?

You know, hopefully, in the negotiation, you'll find that the things you care most about are the things they care least about and vice versa, and you come to an agreement. But you've got to have the ability to make those compromises.

One of the problems we have in America today is, increasingly, both on the right and on the left, there's an anger and an unwillingness to compromise, and in particular a questioning of people's motives. No one could question Ted Kennedy's commitment to the principles of liberalism. No one could question his commitment to fairness, to an end to discrimination, to economic justice and health care. That was a - that's a prerequisite for being an effective negotiator. So, you're right. He was able to protect his position as an articulator of these values, and that in turn was one of the factors that made him a good negotiator.

SEABROOK: So many Americans have personal memories of Senator Kennedy in the more than four decades - close to five decades he was in the Senate. We're going to get to more of our callers. But, Congressman Frank, you worked with him very closely for three decades. What was his - what was he like to work with?

Rep. FRANK: He was fun to work with. You know, he was a man who was secure about who he was. He wasn't constantly trying to prove things. Particularly, I don't think there's a turning point. He felt the burden running for president -in 1980, he ran for president and lost. And then, that liberated him to be the best senator in American history partly because, well, politics is jealous business. As long as he was a potential president, you had other senators being uncooperative to some extent because they didn't want to enhance it, some maybe conscious, some unconscious.

You know, at any given time, a large percentage of the United States Senate is either running for the Senate - the presidency or plans to quickly. And once Ted no longer was a candidate for president, he was totally liked, he had nothing to prove. All he wanted was to advance the public policy he cared about. That made him easy to work with. And he also had a great sense of humor. And he liked humor both as a kind of a consumer and as someone who made jokes. And he would go to meetings that would be very tense, in which there was a lot of political anger and a lot of ideological difference. But if he was going to be there, you looked forward to those meetings because his very presence said, okay guys, we're going to work hard on this and we'll make some tough choices, but, you know, there's nothing that says it has to be an unpleasant experience.

SEABROOK: Congressman Barney Frank joined us from Maine. Sir, thank you very much for joining us.

Rep. FRANK: You're welcome.

SEABROOK: Ken Rudin, Tom Oliphant, I see you both jumping for the mic here. But I do want to get in a couple of quick callers, some memories from our callers before we go back to our esteemed experts here. Let's start with Regina(ph) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

REGINA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

SEABROOK: Yes. What's your memory?

REGINA: When I was 10 years old, my mother took us to Washington, D.C., and we had a tour of the Senate. And being 10, I couldn't have cared less about politics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REGINA: So, you know, she dragged us along, and Ted Kennedy happens to have come back from the whole Chappaquiddick thing that particular day. And I remember looking down at him from above. And he walked in and sort of hung his head and made circles with his finger on the desk. And I suddenly thought, wow, that must be the hardest thing anyone has to do is to come back to a job after such an incident. And he did it. He did it with dignity and he carried on his job and did what he had to do. And every time I've seen him in my life, on television or in the papers, that always stuck out with me, what a great thing that must have been, you know? It was great for me and tough for him. And it was a lesson.

SEABROOK: Regina, thank you so much for you call. Patricia(ph) in Newton, Massachusetts. Hi. You're on the air. Are you there, Patricia?

PATRICIA (Caller): And yes I am. Hello?


PATRICIA: Yes. I just want to share a couple little things with you about the senator. One, I happen to have been a novice, in the novitiate west of Boston in 1961. And Ted Kennedy was invited to the novitiate probably by the very intellectual historian sister on the faculty at the college there. And the room was absolutely packed with young people, young novices, very idealistic people in their 20's with a handful of Providence(ph) sisters as well.

And this dashingly handsome man took the stage, talked about his recent trip to Africa but very soon in the talk, certainly at the beginning of the questions and answers, it became obvious that he was much more comfortable talking about the campaign. And he shared some things about that in which his brother had taken a question which was a difficult one, and JFK had said to the person in the audience, that's a wonderful question. There's going to be a speaker on that next week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PATRICIA: You know, that was one thing. And he - I was mesmerized as was everybody in that hall with this man's energy, his sense of humor and, of course, his looks. And I render up - wrote on, rather, followed up with Kennedy in '69 after Chappaquiddick. I had been out of the convent, had left in '67.


PATRICIA: And - but - because I wanted to campaign with Robert Kennedy on the - against the Vietnam War. That was one of the principal reasons. But, anyway, after Chappaquiddick I volunteered and was in the office when all of this mail was coming in from all over the state as to whether he should - the senator should remain - should run again or should remain in the Senate. And I'm very proud to come across some members of the sisters' local orders who were urging him to stay in. And it was my principle then, even though I did not like what happened, I did see weaknesses absorb them, in the man, because I was close to - met, you know, he didn't know me, but I certainly was present in many occasions in that office where he was.

My sense then was, I can't judge, as Ed Markey's brother said, we've all been there on a Sunday afternoon, referring to confession. None of us is perfect. And we wanted to give this person, who seemed to have the potential to be great, a chance to prove that. And I think we made the correct decision.

SEABROOK: Thank you for your call, Patricia.

Before we have to go to a quick break, but I want to make sure that when we come back, we touch a little bit on the Chappaquiddick episode in this narrative that we're talking about here. When we come back, we'll look at Kennedy's legacy and the fight for civil rights. Of course, we'll continue to talk with NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, and Thomas Oliphant, author and former correspondent and columnist for the Boston Globe. I'm Andrea Seabrook. This is Special Coverage from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: From NPR News in Washington, this is Special Coverage. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Civil rights, disability rights, the minimum wage, immigration, education, campaign finance reform, health care - most, if not all, of the landmark progressive legislation of the past five decades bears the imprint of Senator Edward Kennedy, partly because of his ability to reach beyond his own party. President Obama spoke about the senator who died late last night.

President BARACK OBAMA: In the United States Senate, I can't think of no one who engendered greater respect or affection from members of both sides of the aisle.

SEABROOK: President Barack Obama, speaking about Senator Ted Kennedy earlier today.

Right now, we have two people with us who are closely - who closely followed Senator Kennedy's work on civil rights. Social justice was another subject dear to his heart. Ron Walters is professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park and the author of "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics." He's on the phone from his home in Washington, D.C. Also with us is former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young. He's now chairman of the consulting firm, GoodWorks International. And he joins us on the phone from Atlanta. Thanks to both of you for taking the time to be with us today.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Chairman, GoodWorks International): Very good.

Dr. RONALD WALTERS (Government and Politics, University of Maryland; Author, "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics."): Good to be with you.

SEABROOK: Let me start with you, Ambassador Young. You met Ted Kennedy shortly after you became a Congressman in 1972. What was your impression of him then?

Mr. YOUNG: Well, my impression then was that he had a burning passion to continue the legacy of his two brothers. And, of course, I was a part of that legacy, and he immediately became an ally. And I mean, health care was not something that he invented, but it was something that he certainly started. And I was one of the early sponsors of Kennedy UAW health care bill in the early '70s. But when it came time to renew the Voting Rights Act, he was there.

When I went with him with Dr. Louis Sullivan to see about starting a medical school in the South for minority physicians to practice in rural areas in the South and in cities, we - he helped us form Morehouse Medical School. He was somebody you could go to about anything and everything. In South Africa, my daughter was with him on his staff in foreign affairs. And she went with him to see Winnie Mandela while Winnie Mandela was still under house arrest long before the end of the apartheid regime. And so he was always on the cutting edge of most issues that affect our world.

SEABROOK: Ron Walters, let me turn to you. How would you describe the influence of Senator Kennedy and his role in the Senate, especially as it relates to civil rights issues?

Dr. WALTERS: Well, I certainly would agree, you know, with Andy about the broad sweep of his interest. And I would say that he not only was good about things that affected, universally, the world of people in terms of social issues, he had particular resonance to the African-American community because he stood pretty much in the gate of this tremendous political reaction that occurred after the 1960s to civil rights. And it was - this town, Washington, D.C., was a rough town because you had Ronald Reagan who came to the presidency in 1980. And then after that, you had the Newt Gingrich era which was even more divisive. And through all of that - and Andy mentioned the Voting Rights Act -that's certainly true, because Ronald Reagan, of course, did not support of the renewal and extension of the Voting Rights Act. And so that was a tough battle. It began in 1981, went through 1982. And there was a lot of parts of it but, you know, we didn't have an African-American in the Senate, but he was certainly the closest thing we had.

And there was a constant, throughout his 20-year period, sense in which you knew that you could go to Ted Kennedy's office. During one very important period, Ron Brown who was former secretary of commerce under the Clinton administration, but worked in his office, and he was the key council in the Judiciary Committee, was very important as liaison to the black community. When many of these acts and bills came up, there was sort of a caucus process in Washington D.C.…


Dr. WALTERS: …among the black leadership. And people knew that you could go to Kennedy's staff and you could get a reading on how the bill would behave, whether or not it needed were - who you needed to contact and that kind of thing. So he was kind of a quarterback, if you will, on the Senate side for the black community, and was absolutely indispensable.

SEABROOK: Interesting. He seemed to choose a different path coming out of the '60s for many white politicians.

Dr. WALTERS: Well, that's certainly true. And, you know, when you think about…

Mr. YOUNG: It was the path, though, of his brothers.

Dr. WALTERS: Yes, yes, yes.

Mr. YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WALTERS: Yeah. Go ahead.

Mr. YOUNG: I know his - I think that his family stood out with the least of these God's children. I mean, the fact that Eunice Shriver started the Special Olympics. There was a compassion, a level of compassion and concern in that family. The deaths of Joseph and John and Robert so young put an extra pressure on Senator Ted Kennedy, but also on their wives and their children, and they've done a good job of living up to that legacy.

Dr. WALTERS: As a matter of fact, you know, Andy, I was telling somebody this morning that when you think about Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream…

Mr. YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WALTERS: …and the fact that so much of it was invested in public policy…

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah.

Dr. WALTERS: …you have to think about if he had not been there…

Mr. YOUNG: That's right.

Dr. WALTERS: …how much of that would have remained?

Mr. YOUNG: No, that's clearly true. And there's one little thing, though, I think I'm right on, I think Ed Brooke was still in the Senate then.

Dr. WALTERS: Yes, that's right.

Mr. YOUNG: And Ed Brooke is a Republican who worked with - in fact, it was almost like having two senators…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOUNG: …in Massachusetts who were concerned about people and - Ted Kennedy was far more outspoken. But I found that in my days in Congress when I ended up in a conference committee and Ed Brooke was on the Senate side, I knew we were going to get the job done.

SEABROOK: Gentlemen, let me ask you both to hold on one second. We have a call from listener Margie(ph) in Cook(ph) Spring, Kentucky. Go ahead, Margie.

MARGIE (Caller): I'm halfway through the biography of the last lion, and truly in awe of his service to our country. My question is: Is there going to be a younger generation in the Kennedy family to stand up and carry on this legacy of service?

SEABROOK: Ron Walters?

Dr. WALTERS: Well, I would think that there certainly will be, because - as Andy says - that the values in this family are deep. And I don't know how it would be possible for them to ignore that aspect of their legacy. As a matter of fact, right now, part of the spotlight, in terms of the succession to that seat is focused on Joe Kennedy. And as a matter of fact, Joe didn't feel like he wanted to be a politician, but he has been doing some very important socially redeeming things with his life that he could carry into the political arena. And so, it's going to be interesting to see what sort of group emerges now that Ted Kennedy has left the scene.

SEABROOK: Ron Walters, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park, and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, joining us from Atlanta. Thank you both very much for your time.

Mr. YOUNG: Okay, very good.

Dr. WALTERS: Thank you.

Mr. YOUNG: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Let me turn back here to our studio and to Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, and Tom Oliphant from the Boston - formerly of the Boston Globe. Let me ask you both, starting with Ken, who will carry on this torch? Let's not forget that his - Ted Kennedy's fight for health care, he saw very much as part of the fight for civil rights.

RUDIN: Right. I think I disagree a little bit with Professor Walters, in that I don't know if there's a Kennedy who will take up the Kennedy legacy. There could be somebody ideologically similar to Kennedy. But nobody stands out like Ted, because - I mean, first of all, we're talking about 47 years in the Senate. A lot of people here have been not - here not that long.

But what I was most struck by when I was listening to Andy Young is that - talk about the civil rights legacies of John and Robert. And, you know, John, of course, was cut down at the prime of his life, Robert, cut down in the prime of his life. Ted Kennedy was 77 years old, in the Senate 47 years and yet, he too was cut down too soon in the sense that he never reached the promised land that he helped to with health care. And so, a lot of us are very surprised that we feel the same kind of mourning even though we felt that this day was coming for a long time.


Mr. OLIPHANT: I think one thing that's different, though, is that Kennedy very clearly saw how this health care drama was going to play out. And while he couldn't participate in a visible way, behind the scenes until just really not much more than several weeks ago, he was in the middle of it. And the thing that lives on right now, this moment, is an aspect of his politics that Barney Frank, sort of, alluded to, but it's really at the core, and that is he had the trust of his fellow Democrats and fellow progressives to be the guy who has to say at some point this is the best that we can get this year. Take it, and we'll see you next year. That's really Kennedy perseverance oversimplified.

Now, in this health care conundrum today, apart from paying no attention to all this silly yelling and screaming that's been going on in the country for the last month or two of, you know, death panels or all this other sideshow stuff, Kennedy's message to his fellow Democrats has simply been start writing the bill. There's been enough time, there have been enough hearings, convene the one committee yet to do its work is the Senate Finance Committee, just start writing a bill. Put section one on the table and start voting. And at the end of the day, you're going to win most of it, you're going to probably lose some. Swallow hard and we'll see you next year for the next phase.

The idea - Kennedy never saw this as something that would - it's one of the mistakes people make in thinking about what - the passage of this bill ends -Kennedy understood that it never stops. This is what he meant in that famous phrase from 1980 about this goes on forever, the cause, the dream, and all the rest of it. And in this fight right now, his message to his fellow Democrats is do the best you can and make it even better next year.

SEABROOK: Let's take a quick minute to just touch on something that we're getting a lot of calls, a lot of emails about this as people look backwards now, take the long view of his legacy, trying to fit the tragedy of Chappaquiddick into his legacy. We have one email here, for example, from Mark(ph) who wrote in to say that Senator Kennedy was responsible for gross negligence in the death of a young woman who trusted him. Worse, he was never able to take full responsibility for this. Why are we praising this man? Ken?

RUDIN: Well, I think like all of us, we have faults and we have good points and bad points. There's no question that perhaps the lowest point of Ted Kennedy's career, if not life, was his - what happened - the incident. I don't know to refer to it as an incident because it is a loss of a human life. But at Chappaquiddick in 1969 where he not only drove off the bridge, left Mary Joe Kopechne in the car, he swam to safety, and then 10 hours later went to retrieve the body when, of course, it was too late. It cost him his - probably it cost him the presidency. It certainly cost him Senate - he was Senate majority whip. He lost to Robert Byrd right after that because of Chappaquiddick. But it also made him realize what was important in life. And I think it was part of that, as Tom was alluding to earlier, it got him from the playboy, from the dilettante, to the more serious legislator.

Mr. OLIPHANT: The only thing I'd add. I'm trying to make a mental list of the absolute toughest adjectives I have ever heard to describe what happened at Chappaquiddick. And the ones that come to mind are unforgivable, inexplicable…

RUDIN: Indefensible.

Mr. OLIPHANT: …indefensible - pick your synonym for those three and they all came out of Edward Kennedy's mouth at the time. I never met anybody who more harshly judged Kennedy's conduct that night than Kennedy himself. And, you know, if we just digress long enough to observe that the facts are as we know them and no one has ever shown otherwise. And secondly, that this was really a marvelous young woman who was truly dedicated to politics and government, not, you know, this was not a party. But the toughest judge was always Kennedy. And he left it open that night in Massachusetts. And as the lady said earlier, the people spoke very clearly. And - but in all the years that have followed, I have never heard anybody use tougher words about Chappaquiddick than Kennedy did.

SEABROOK: Let's quickly go to James(ph) in Winston, Salem, North Carolina. Hi there.

JAMES: Hi, how are you doing?

SEABROOK: Good. Go ahead.

JAMES: Thank you for taking my call. My name is James Hunder, and I'm president of the Liberian Organization of the Piedmont in North Carolina. Just called to express our deepest regret for the death of Senator Kennedy. Senator Kennedy, has in the past, he has done some wonderful things for Liberians, not just in the diaspora or in the United States. But take for instance our political and civil conflict in Liberia. He was one of those that spoke highly against it, and saw to it that in conjunction for all the people and that war came to an end. And now that we have a democratically-elected president, things are going fine. And we thank him for that, would never forget that.

Also, on behalf of Liberian refugees here in the United States, he has submitted bills in Congress in favor of the Liberian immigration reform.


JAMES: So, you know, and this is - that's really been helpful to us and thanks to President Obama also for extending the temporary protected status, which is of course the DED.

SEABROOK: Thank you for your call, James. It's almost any group.

Mr. OLIPHANT: Well, you know, actually, I was just thinking of all the times I went up to his office in the Senate and in the waiting room, got introduced to somebody who - a guy who was horribly disfigured or a woman who had no arms or a kid who'd obviously just been beaten to a pulp. And time had passed, but -victims of human rights abuses around the world. It was one of the regular stops on the human rights tour. A lot of people don't remember, but he's - if you had to pick one person, the biggest single reason that Reagan's opposition to sanctions against South Africa was overcome, the guy who helped him do it in the Senate is today the White House counsel, Greg Craig, another graduate of the alumna. But that office was a human rights refuge.

SEABROOK: Tom Oliphant, that's the last word from him, the former correspondent and columnist for the Boston Globe. Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor. Thank you both for joining me today. We've been remembering Senator Edward M. Kennedy this hour, the last surviving brother of the storied Kennedy clan. He lost his battle with brain cancer last night at the age of 77. After his funeral in Boston, the late senator will be buried next to his brothers, John and Robert, in Arlington National Cemetery.

This has been special coverage from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.