The Little-Known Ted

Ted Kennedy outside his office at the Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., March 2006
David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Ted Kennedy outside his office at the Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., March 2006

I should have suspected that Nick Littlefield had a career on Broadway before he entered politics. Littlefield was the Kennedy aide who brought me to the senator’s attention in the 2000s based on my articles in these pages and others. My task was generally to write speeches and later to collaborate on a book; the focus of both was the importance of government in America in a period when antigovernment ideology was powerful. It was hard to resist Littlefield’s charm and enthusiasm, just as it would be hard to resist the Kennedy who loved to sing a Broadway song almost as much as Nick did. But it was Kennedy’s devotion to the possibilities of government—his refusal to let go of his long-standing principles—that struck me.

Littlefield had long planned a book about his experiences with the senator during the difficult period after the 1994 elections when, with Clinton as president, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and sought to change America’s direction with their highly conservative Contract with America. The contract, which drew on Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address, was designed to undo Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal itself. It sought, as an example, to cut back welfare programs sharply and not provide aid to poor mothers under eighteen.

Littlefield contracted a serious neurological disorder after he began his book and collaborated with another Kennedy aide, David Nexon, in writing Lion of the Senate: When Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Senate. Their theme is to demonstrate first how Kennedy led the resistance to the extreme right-wing program of Newt Gingrich, who became the Republican Speaker of the House in January 1995, and how Kennedy then went on to lead the opposition to the united Republican front in Congress and the policies of the Contract with America.

Despite Littlefield’s experience and friendship with the senator, I’d argue that “lion” doesn’t seem the most accurate word with which to describe Kennedy. He could harangue Congress and his own Democratic colleagues from time to time in his deep baritone voice, but what was most impressive about Kennedy and maybe less well known is that he was indefatigable. During his fifty years in Washington, he was, before he died of brain cancer in 2009, one of the few elected officials in Washington who seemed genuinely dedicated to the sick, the poor, children, the elderly, women, and students. When politicians told him he couldn’t pass a certain bill, his reaction was to charge ahead with all the more determination. The large number of bills he sponsored or cosponsored is remarkable; so were his…

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