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 legislative victories in opposition to Republicans or conservative Democrats.
He began notably in the early 1960s with his defeat of the southern Democrats’ attempt to create a poll tax to limit the voting of African-Americans. Over the years, his victories under Republican presidents included the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bill of rights for the disabled, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, vetoed by George H.W. Bush but signed by Bill Clinton, which required businesses to give workers time to care for newborns and deal with medical problems. After Bush took office in 1989, Kennedy was responsible for legislation providing the first federal aid for people who contracted AIDS, a policy Reagan had earlier fiercely opposed. In the 1990s, he also got several pieces of major legislation passed when he was told it was impossible, even ridiculous, to try to do so in view of the Republican majority in both houses of Congress. One of these was the minimum wage increase of 1996. Another was child health insurance, passed with the bipartisan cooperation of the Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah.
What remains little known is the intensity with which Kennedy prepared himself for practically every important occasion. He gathered groups of analysts and academics to debate the issues before he presented a new bill or had a meeting with the president, an opposition leader, or his fellow Democrats. For such advice he drew on, among many others, Harvard’s Robert Cole and Michael Sandell, Columbia’s Alan Brinkley, informed journalists like Robert Kuttner, and economists like Brookings’s George Perry. He also met with CEOs of relevant companies and business consultants.
In later years, I attended such meetings in Boston and Cambridge hotels and the Boston Harvard Club and heard sometimes contentious discussions of difficult issues, with Nick Littlefield’s successor Michael Myers usually by Kennedy’s side. Kennedy seemed to thrive on these sessions. He saw them as preparation for combat in the Senate and outside it, and for his speeches, which were widely reported. He was also following in his own way a pattern set by his older brothers, the president, JFK, and Robert F. Kennedy, as senator and in his presidential primary run; both had teams of intellectuals and activists to call upon, although Ted Kennedy seemed to have a special zest for such collaboration.
Kennedy worked constantly, and if he had to make an intense effort to win over a senatorial colleague he did so. Sometimes he sang a song in a meeting, or he would memorize a thousand-word poem, as he did to win approval for federal funds to renovate the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mostly, he was a purposeful presence on the Senate floor or in the cloakroom, or he was visiting the offices of senators to form voting alliances to support his programs or defeat those of Republicans or right-wing Democrats. He had many friends but, as a saying goes, he often kept his enemies closer. As he told Littlefield when he joined his team, bipartisanship was a crucial element in passing legislation, and Kennedy diligently found Republican allies who had similar goals when it came to particular issues but who had quite different ideologies. His main ally was Orrin Hatch, but over the years there were other important Republican allies, such as Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas.
Few if any knew Kennedy as well as Littlefield, who was the chief of staff of Kennedy’s Health, Education, and Labor Committee from 1989 to 1998. Littlefield had a habit, formed when he was a lawyer, of taking detailed notes of all Kennedy’s meetings with legislators and advisers. The result is a fascinating, often conversational account of what became, in Kennedy’s mind, a dangerous chapter in American politics, ending with the defeat in the Senate of the proposals of the Republican conservative majority led by Gingrich. Gingrich resigned in 1998 from his post as Speaker. Others contributed to the defeat of the Contract with America, including the sometimes waffling President Bill Clinton. But no one persevered as Kennedy did. What comes through is how much Kennedy loved to be a senator, acting in effect as the conductor of his own political orchestra to produce unexpected results, often against the odds. The book also tells us more about how the Senate really runs than arguably any book you will read.
In 1994, Republicans won controlling majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time since the election of 1952. Led by Newt Gingrich, they promised to carry out the Contract with America and not compromise. Because they did not get their way, they closed down the federal government for two brief periods, denying the executive branch the ability to borrow to pay its bills. Their proposals were cloaked in idealistic-sounding language with phrases referring, for example, to “taking back our streets” and “fiscal responsibility,” but they boiled down to major tax cuts for the wealthy, paid for by sharply cutting social programs, including Medicare benefits, and reducing federal government expenditures on education by up to 25 percent, with the announced goal of balancing the budget.
But most of these bills could not be passed while Kennedy and some fellow Democrats led the opposition to them and encouraged President Clinton to hold the line as well. Kennedy feared Clinton would side with the Republicans too often; but Clinton gained a second term in 1996 and presided over an economic boom, in which the unemployment rate fell to under 4 percent. The unemployment rate for African-Americans fell even more rapidly, although at 6.9 percent it remained almost double the rate for whites, and it was also reduced because of the high rate of incarceration of African-American males. Yet the voting machinations in Florida and the complicity of the Supreme Court, as well as the vote for Ralph Nader, enabled George W. Bush to take the presidency in 2001; otherwise a transfer of power from Clinton to Al Gore and to Kennedy as a powerful Senate leader would have taken place. That would have meant no big tax cuts for the wealthy and stronger policies for the poor, the unemployed, and the environment, in addition to making a war in Iraq unlikely. It would also have led, I would argue, to faster economic growth with, at last, adequate investment in transportation and other infrastructure.
Many Democrats, including Clinton, had been shocked by the 1994 Republican surge. One wonders why. Clinton raised taxes in 1993, mostly on the wealthy, but perhaps most important, he failed to deliver the universal health care he had promised. By the time of the election, the president’s approval rating was down to 44 percent.
Crucial to Kennedy’s leadership in the Senate was his victory over Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 1994. No Kennedy had previously lost a Senate battle, but Romney was rich, handsome, and articulate. Few were better suited to ride the new Republican wave.
In the spring of the election year, surveys showed that only one third of Massachusetts voters thought Kennedy deserved reelection and Kennedy’s own polling began to show him well behind Romney. It seemed clear that the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who was with Kennedy when he drove his car into the water on Cape Cod in 1969, still affected the public view of him. Moreover, three years before the election his nephew was tried and acquitted on charges of rape in Palm Beach.
Under pressure from Republicans, who particularly emphasized the size of government and alleged abuses of welfare, Democrats softened their liberal views as they ran for office, placing new attention on balancing the budget and controlling social spending. As laissez-faire ideology grew more popular and anger over allegations of waste in welfare programs rose, Kennedy became more insistent on the importance of government, particularly for the poor. He borrowed $1 million against his Virginia house for campaign advertising against Romney.
In a speech on October 16 at Faneuil Hall in Boston, which Nick Littlefield says was “one of the most memorable moments of the campaign,” Kennedy said:
I stand for the idea that public service can make a difference in the lives of people. I believe in a government and a senator that fight for your jobs. I believe in a government and a senator that fight to secure the fundamental right of health care for all Americans…. I will be a senator on your side. I will stand up for the people and not the powerful.
Kennedy won by a handsome margin but the Democratic Party lost Congress badly. Clinton had campaigned in just about every state where his candidates were running and Littlefield and Nexon write that he and his wife were shocked by the Democratic failure. A headline in The Washington Post read, “An Historic Election Message of Repudiation to President Clinton and His Party.”
In their talks with Kennedy about coming legislation, the members of his staff painted a forbidding picture. The new congressional majority would try to drastically cut back any provisions by the federal government for education; the ultimate objective of the Republicans would be to privatize Medicare. The Republicans wanted to eliminate the minimum wage completely. Nine of eleven of the new Republican senators favored outlawing abortions.
As the electorate dramatically shifted, many of the Democratic legislators were prepared to take a step to the right. The Times reported, “Still shell-shocked, they cannot agree on what the party needs to make a comeback.”
Kennedy prepared a major speech for January 1995, a kind of Kennedy State of the Union, two weeks before the president delivered his own on January 24. The speech was carried live on C-Span, and in emotionally intense language he argued for a vigorous alternative to the Republican victory. The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, and the House Democratic leader, Richard Gephardt, sent the speech to all members of Congress. The Democratic National Committee sent it to all Democratic governors. His target was not merely the extremist Republicans but the Democrats intimidated by their victory:
I come here as a Democrat. I reject such qualifiers as New Democrat or Old Democrat…. The election last November was not a ratification of Republican solutions. By the narrowest of margins, they gained control of Congress. But less than 40 percent of eligible voters turned out on election day, and only slightly more than half of those—about 20 percent—cast ballots for Republicans. Some mandate!
Kennedy told the Democrats that the Democratic resistance could be effective only if they did not give in. But mostly, he feared that Clinton would turn away from basic Democratic ideals by adopting the new political strategy called triangulation, by which he would meet the Republicans halfway. The Times reported, for example, that in response to the Republican program, the White House was preparing an agenda of deep cuts in federal spending and a restructured government to balance the budget. According to the triangulation strategy, Clinton would situate himself between Republicans and Democrats.
Kennedy used the coming battle over a minimum wage increase to help unite the Democrats. Congress had passed an increase in 1980, but Reagan held off any further increase throughout the 1980s, even as inflation diminished its value. Kennedy was able to lead Congress to pass a minimum wage increase in 1989 under the “kinder, gentler” administration of George H.W. Bush. But few if any believed a minimum wage hike was possible after the Republicans took control of Congress following the election of 1994.
After Kennedy introduced his bill in early January, he arranged a meeting with Clinton and urged him to support a minimum wage increase in his State of the Union address later that month, at least in general terms. This Clinton did, to Kennedy’s delight. In a meeting of the Democrats soon after the State of the Union, some members expressed their doubts about supporting the minimum wage increase. Their hesitation angered Kennedy. He unleashed a tirade on the subject of Democrats standing up for what they believed in. “I can’t believe what I am hearing,” Kennedy said, or rather shouted out. “The minimum wage will only help the poor.”
I saw a similar Kennedy harangue several times in later years. It was usually provoked by what he perceived as someone’s insensitivity to the poor. His face turned red, his voice rose, and his veins seemed as if they’d pop his shirt collar. Nothing endeared him more to this writer, an Old Democrat, than his idealism turned loose. He had no illusions about his own privileged life, but in our talks he spoke very convincingly about the difficulties of the poorer people he had known and about the dilemmas they faced. He called me enthusiastically from the Senate floor after delivering a speech we’d worked on about the purposes of government and particularly the need to counter private power on behalf of people who had few resources or hopes.
The Democrats’ strategy in 1995 was to keep delivering a familiar message: Republicans wanted to cut back social welfare programs in order to pay for the large tax cuts they proposed in the Contract with America. In particular, the Republicans kept on proposing drastic cuts in Medicare benefits while polling showed that a large proportion of Americans wanted the benefits to continue. This was an issue Democrats could run on, and they did. The Republicans seemed oblivious to popular support for Medicare.
Finally, the Republicans forced a showdown with Clinton in late 1995. The immediate issue was how to balance the budget. Even with their big tax cuts and increased military spending, the Republicans demanded that the budget be balanced in seven years, largely by sharp cuts in social spending. Gingrich and his allies were relying on economic forecasts of the Congressional Budget Office, which at the time could be used to support conservative policies. The more liberal Democrats wanted a budget to be balanced in ten years under the faster growth path forecast by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The OMB projection would mean significantly less cutting from social programs.
The president seemed to vacillate between the two. There were reports that Clinton, under advice of the pollster Dick Morris, and others, would follow the policy of triangulation, which would include adopting a welfare reform that established new work requirements for recipients—requirements that would be hard for many to fulfill—and that also placed a limit on the number of years of coverage. The legislation did not include a program to create decent jobs for the poor, and in the recession of 2008–2009 and its aftermath, many were left with neither a job nor welfare through no fault of their own. Kennedy was vigorously opposed, but Congress passed it, causing serious difficulties for unemployed people.
Kennedy, the quarterback of the progressive Democrats, made an especially strong speech in October 1995 on the Senate floor in defense of Medicare. Polling now showed, he said, that Americans rejected significant cuts to Medicare by a margin of two to one. “Republicans are being found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said:
Guilty of hurting helpless elderly patients in nursing homes; guilty of punishing innocent children on welfare; guilty of closing college doors to the sons and daughters of working families; guilty of pandering to polluters and endangering the environment; guilty of massive giveaways to powerful special interest groups; guilty of taxing low-income workers; guilty of taxing hard-pressed college students—all to give tax breaks to millionaires.
Kennedy had important allies, particularly Gephardt and Daschle. The Democrats by now were largely united in sounding the theme Kennedy had emphasized.
The Republicans effectively closed down the government in late November and then again in December by refusing to increase the federal debt limit unless Clinton agreed to their stringent cuts in the budget. Clinton refused to do so, and Littlefield and Nexon write that Hillary Clinton encouraged him not to give in. Government workers were not paid, including teachers; the elderly could not sign up for Social Security; hundreds could not get passports. Kennedy made a speech on the Senate floor about how the uncertainty over budget cuts was devastating for education.
Kennedy feared that Clinton was indeed moving to the right, despite holding the line on the budget. In his January 1996 State of the Union speech, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” His obsession with balancing the budget and eventually maintaining a surplus continued throughout his second term and placed limits on proposals to expand social spending and public investment, among them significant support for transportation infrastructure. And Clinton did sign the welfare reform bill that Kennedy strongly opposed.
Still, apart from welfare reform, the Republicans had lost the major political battles because of their extremism and because the Democrats, led by Kennedy, resisted the antigovernment plans of Gingrich and the Republican leadership. Few of their proposals were passed. As Adam Clymer, the Washington correspondent for The New York Times, put it, “The Republican revolution is stalled on Capitol Hill, blocked by an ideological appetite bigger than their majorities can fulfill, by an unexpectedly determined Democratic opposition, and by the public’s resistance to sacrifice.”
The year 1996 turned out to be better for the Democrats. Probably most important to Kennedy, after continuous battles with the Republicans, was that in July 1996 he at last got the minimum wage bill passed that he had sought since early 1995. More than a few Republicans were realizing that Gingrich’s war against the government was causing hardship and provoking a reaction.
Congress also passed the health care reform bill Kennedy sought, including a provision referred to as portability, which allowed employees to take their employer-funded health care insurance with them if they left a job. The bill was not comprehensive enough, Kennedy felt, but he took what he could get. His Republican cosponsor was Nancy Kassebaum, senator from Kansas and wife of Howard Baker, the senator from Tennessee. This was a presidential election year and Clinton won reelection easily in November, although the Republicans had a majority of seats in the Senate.
Federal aid for health care had been an obsession for Kennedy since the 1970s, and soon after his victory with Kassebaum he tried to go further. This time he sought federal insurance for children whose parents were poor but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. His Republican cosponsor was again Orrin Hatch, and the bill, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, was passed in the summer of 1997 after intense negotiations with Hatch. It was the largest health care bill since the Social Security Amendments, which established Medicare and Medicaid, were passed in 1965.
In the early 2000s, with George W. Bush’s presidential victory, the battle in America over the legitimacy of government was renewed. Once again, Kennedy sought help from scholars, writers, and social critics. I wrote texts arguing that rigidly ideological Republicans like Gingrich misinterpreted American history. The nation was never purely laissez-faire, and I wrote speeches for Kennedy on how important government investment and social policies were to economic growth since the early 1800s. This was a theme that he wanted to emphasize, and I participated in discussions with him, Michael Myers, his new chief of staff, who succeeded Littlefield, and a good many others. Kennedy asked for research and discussion about the ways the private economy depended on government support.
The battle over the size and purpose of government continued during the Bush years, starting with another sharp cut in taxes, mostly for the wealthy. Kennedy was nevertheless proud of some legislation he helped sponsor, including a major plan for drug benefits for the elderly. It was only with Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, however, that Kennedy’s hope for America was restored. In the primary campaign he had thrown his support behind Obama rather than Hillary Clinton. He was eager to discuss the prospects for a new attempt at a universal health care system after Obama’s election. His advice to Obama was to make the compromises necessary to get a good bill even though it might fall short of some important goals. He supported the Affordable Care Act.
In the battle in Congress that ensued, Kennedy could not follow through as he would have liked. Brain cancer weakened him and he passed leadership on the issue to his good friend Senator Christopher Dodd. He almost lived to see the bill passed, dying a year before in 2009.
Kennedy would have fought hard against Republican attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Obama badly misses a major ally on this and other issues although Kennedy’s successor, Elizabeth Warren, has stood out as a forceful advocate on many fronts. She was one of the freelance advisers to Kennedy I’ve mentioned and she’s shown that she has, as he did, a full appreciation of the purpose of government.