Sen. Ted Kennedy, a passionate orator who knew the art of compromise

Sen. Edward Kennedy would thunder against Republicans but was also skillful in crafting Senate compromises with them.

Associated Press

Sen. Edward Kennedy would thunder against Republicans but was also skillful in crafting Senate compromises with them.

When he was on the Senate floor, Ted Kennedy could crank up the passion, delivering desk-pounding speeches that were great political theater.

When he spoke, many of us in the Senate Press Gallery would take a break from writing our stories and file into the chamber to watch.

He'd get so wound up — particularly when he was talking about the minimum wage or helping the poor — that his face would turn red and he would shout and flail his arms. It didn't matter whether he was speaking to a packed chamber or an empty one, he still shouted and pounded. His speeches came from the heart.

The Massachusetts Democrat would blast the Republicans, saying they lacked compassion and coddled Big Business. He'd accuse them of stalling and ignoring the people who were most in need.

And then, after the presiding senator said Kennedy had run out of time, he would stroll off the floor and cut a deal with the very people he had just railed against.

In his 46 years in the Senate, Kennedy managed to reconcile the dual roles of a lawmaker. He was a passionate orator who could electrify the chamber and a pragmatic legislator who knew the art of compromise.

When I came to Washington in 1997, a colleague told me to watch Kennedy because of his ability to switch gears from passion to pragmatism. When the deal is finally cut, my colleague said, Kennedy is always at the table.

I saw that firsthand in a remote corner of the Capitol, a quiet alcove that had two comfortable chairs. I went there a few times a week to get away from the noise of the press gallery and catch up on my reading.

The chairs happened to be right in front of the door to Kennedy's "hideaway" office, a small room on the West Front of the Capitol. (Hideaway offices are a perk for the most senior senators so they don't have to schlep all the way back to their main office to hold a meeting.) I saw a steady stream of staffers and senators of both parties come visit. It was one of many places where Kennedy cut his deals.

Former Sen. Bob Graham said Kennedy was formidable in those meetings because of his mastery of details. "He had an institutional memory," Graham said.

Kennedy would remind people at the table about some obscure provision approved 12 years earlier, but Graham said "most people in the room would be completely ignorant of what happened 12 years ago."

When I wrote a profile of Kennedy in 2004, Sen. John McCain said Kennedy recognized the importance of bipartisanship. He praised Kennedy for being "willing to negotiate. But he doesn't compromise his principles."

Graham said Kennedy was a passionate liberal but "at the core, a very practical man. He understood in American politics things don't happen with a Hail Mary pass, but that progress comes through four yards and a cloud of dust."

Kennedy was such an icon of liberalism that Republicans often tried to demonize Democrats by calling them "Ted Kennedy liberals." But in reality, Kennedy was a pragmatist who worked closely with the very Republicans who used him as a villain in their speeches and fundraising mailings. Case in point: He was a key player in helping President George W. Bush pass his signature education plan No Child Left Behind.

To many Americans, Kennedy is known for his oratory. His speech from the 1980 Democratic convention, when he ended his campaign against incumbent Jimmy Carter ("The work goes on . . . the cause endures . . . the hope still lives . . . and the dream shall never die") is one of the most powerful speeches in recent history.

But Kennedy's Senate speeches are also legendary, particularly for those of us in the congressional press corps.

Many senators deliver speeches with the enthusiasm of a sixth-grader reading a book report. But Kennedy spoke with fervor. He'd unleash his fury on Republicans he felt were blocking his initiatives.

"What is the price? we ask the other side! How much more to we have to give?" he thundered during a speech in recent years on the minimum wage. "When does the greed stop?!"

But soon enough, Kennedy would be back at the table with those very Republicans. And the deal would be done.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, a passionate orator who knew the art of compromise 08/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 1:49pm]

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