He wasn’t called the Lion of the Senate merely out of respect for his seniority or gravitas. Senator Kennedy roared his words. His classic speeches settled into a rhythm that flung perfectly balanced phrases at the far end of a union hall or Senate chamber.
But in private – or for the occasional all-important television interview – the other Kennedy showed up. That Kennedy could slip into a tangle of partial sentences, ums, and ahs, leaving listeners confused.
His rhetoric has, at the best times, won him admirers on both sides of the aisle as a straight and forceful speaker. At the worst, it cost him dearly in his bid for the presidency. But it was one of the quirks that defined him as a Kennedy to those that knew him best.
“Even his very best friends have noted for years that his method of speaking is a kind of shorthand in which, like other members of the Kennedy clan, they seem to understand each other very well but nobody else does,” says Edward Klein, who wrote the 2009 biography, “Ted Kennedy: The Dream that Never Died.”
Union lobbyist and friend of 40 years Bobby Juliano describes Kennedy as “a magnificent orator, but sometimes when chatting he can become a little bit wandering.”
To Mr. Juliano, it was a sign “of a very fertile mind.” But to some outsiders, the half-sentences and pauses fueled whispers that Kennedy was not as impressive as the bright people he hired to work for him.
In his 2007 memoir, “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner,” one of Kennedy’s speech writers, Robert Shrum describes a particularly damaging television interview with CBS correspondent Roger Mudd early in the 1980 presidential campaign.
Asked why he wanted to be president, “Kennedy lapsed into a shorthand of half-sentences, pauses, and a halting list of issues,” Mr. Shrum wrote. “He sometimes talked – and still talks – that way. So did JFK and RFK.”
Indeed, Kennedy’s explanation was that “he’d gotten used to it growing up; there were sessions around a crowded dinner table where you had to resort to that kind of verbal shorthand to get a word in edgewise,” Shrum added. “But even if his two brothers had their own moments of broken syntax, that wasn’t how the country remembered them.”
Yet Kennedy will be remembered for inspired words, as well, and three speeches, in particular.
A brother’s eulogy
First, he spoke his brother’s words at his brother’s funeral, remembering Robert Kennedy with words that Robert spoke to a young audience in South Africa in 1966. Ted was the last of the four Kennedy brothers, and the words fit the occasion.
“Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty…. Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control,” he said at Robert’s funeral, closing the eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York with Robert’s signature line: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
The speech perhaps most remembered was the 1980 Democratic Convention address that marked the close of Kennedy’s own presidential ambitions.
That speech, written by Shrum, is perfect, but it was Kennedy’s delivery that set it apart, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “You had to listen to it to fully get the impact,” he adds.
It was a Kennedy speech about the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court on July 1, 1987, that began to dramatically shift the culture of judicial nomination fights in the Senate.
Anticipating that President Reagan might nominate Judge Bork to the Supreme Court, Kennedy and his staff began ramping up for a bit of fire and brimstone on the Senate floor that came to be known as “Robert Bork’s America.”
“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit as segregated lunch counters … and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is – and is often the only – protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy,” he said within an hour of the Reagan announcement.
It was a first volley in a fight that quickly turned and bitter. In the end, the Senate rejected the Bork nomination, but the bitterness persists in the nomination process to this day.
“I hope one of Ted Kennedy’s legacies is that in an age of spin, he had the courage to directly express and fight for his ideas and principles…. He will be missed as a friend and noble adversary,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Kennedy's legacy as Senate's liberal lion
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