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Kennedy Remembered As Civil Rights Champion

Above: People participate during a candlelight vigil in memory of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) at Dupont Circle August 26, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Edward Kennedy's skills were never more successful and constant than in the area of civil rights: for minorities, for women, for the disabled and for immigrants.

Over nearly five decades, the Massachusetts Democrat, who died Tuesday at age 77, assumed an increasingly important role in framing the nation's civil rights laws and in leading the opposition to Supreme Court nominees he viewed as hostile to civil rights.

Perhaps it was the NINA — No Irish Need Apply — signs his grandfather told him about in Boston. Perhaps it was the moral legacy left unfinished by his assassinated brothers. Whatever the reason, Kennedy long identified with those who are left out and left behind. Over the course of almost a half-century in the Senate, Kennedy would lead the fight for enactment of a truly astonishing list of civil rights laws.

Tireless Advocate

The first battles came in 1965, when he fought to abolish the poll tax. As chairman of the then-obscure Immigration Subcommittee, he rewrote the immigration laws to do away with the preference for Europeans, a move that effectively enabled Hispanics, Asians and Africans to come to the U.S.

He did not always accomplish what he wanted on the first try, often accepting an incremental step forward, then returning to finish the job years or even decades later.

When the Supreme Court began interpreting laws to undercut civil rights protections, Kennedy stepped in to undo those decisions. In 1987, for example, after three years of work, Kennedy won passage of key civil rights legislation to override a Supreme Court decision. But there was one final hurdle: He had to engineer the override of a presidential veto — which he did — to enact the law that prohibits federal funds from going to institutions that discriminate.

Four years later, he won passage of another civil rights law that reversed no fewer than seven Supreme Court decisions and, for the first time, provided damages for the victims of discrimination.

Intuitive Sense Of 'Rhythms Of Legislative Process'

Ralph Neas, who worked with Kennedy, first as a staffer for Republican senators and then as head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, says he doesn't know anyone who knew the issues like Kennedy.

"No one puts it all together like Ted Kennedy," he says. "No one intuitively can feel the rhythms of the legislative process like Ted Kennedy."

By all accounts, nobody worked harder, either. Each night, Kennedy would take home a heavy briefcase filled with notebooks and memos. The next morning, the staff would arrive at Kennedy's home around 7 a.m. to find him sitting in his study, with notebooks strewn about, pages marked up and dog-eared, and the senator primed for discussion. At night, he often would invite teams of scholars, experts or advocates over for dinner, and the conversation would last late into the night.

"By the time you left Sen. Kennedy's house, he knew everything that you knew," says women's rights advocate Judith Lichtman. "He had truly drained your brain."

Consensus Builder

Ironically, Kennedy, a liberal lightning rod for conservative fundraisers, was, in fact, the quintessential consensus builder on legislation behind the scenes. When he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his chief counsel would meet every day over breakfast with the Republican counsel to figure out the day's agenda, and to ensure that senators from both parties knew what was going to happen and how each senator would react. Kennedy's guy was Stephen Breyer, now a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"He liked to get results," Breyer says. "He is result-oriented, and he'd tell us, 'Don't worry so much about credit. Credit is something where, if you succeed, there will be plenty of credit to go around, and if you fail, who wants the credit?' "

Indeed, Kennedy's relations with Republicans were so good that he managed to beat back a filibuster and get Breyer confirmed for a Court of Appeals judgeship in 1980 after Ronald Reagan won the presidential election.

He was a tireless and skilled negotiator, but even his good humor and patience had its limits. In 1989, for instance, after negotiating with key Republicans and Cabinet officials in the George H.W. Bush administration over the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kennedy faced his last obstacle, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor. With all the key players sitting at a long table, Sununu, apparently without provocation, lost his temper at Bobby Silverstein, the top staffer for Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's disabilities subcommittee.

"Sununu started screaming at me at the top of his lungs, and then Sen. Kennedy started to turn red," Silverstein recalls. "And he just, at the top of his lungs, said to Gov. Sununu, 'Don't you ever, ever talk to staff that way. You want to yell, you talk to me that way.' "

Kennedy's outburst changed the dynamic in the room, according to those who were there. Instead of being a group divided, they were a group united in admonition of Sununu. A deal was soon struck.

'Borking' Bork

If politics is the art of compromise, it is also, on some occasions, the willingness to fight in the face of overwhelming odds. It is hard to remember now, but when President Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, almost nobody thought the nomination could be defeated. Within hours, Kennedy went to the Senate floor to make a famous, and controversial, speech.

"Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught evolution," Kennedy said at the time.

Republicans like the then-assistant GOP leader Alan Simpson were stunned.

"I went to him afterward, and I said, 'Hey, pal, that was wretched excess. That was beyond belief.' "

Kennedy's speech, however, achieved the desired effect.

"Tactically, the speech was intended to, in essence, freeze the debate, to alert people in the country that this was going to be a matter of huge controversy, and to give senators a reason to think twice before saying something favorable to Judge Bork," says Jeff Blattner, a former member of Kennedy's Judiciary Committee staff.

In the weeks that followed, Kennedy would use that pause he created to mobilize grass-roots activists, Democratic contributors and everyone from African-American ministers to labor leaders.

During the August recess, on Cape Cod, Mass., he worked the phones constantly, immersed himself in Bork's writings and bombarded his staff with requests for additional information. As usual, he brought in teams of experts for discussions. And he also did something quite unusual: He got his staff to compile a book of some of what he considered Bork's most extreme writings and speeches. Then he personally delivered the book to about 15 key senators and asked them to read it.

Republicans saw Kennedy's actions as a distortion of the process. They started using Bork as a verb — "to be Borked" — meaning an unfair attack on someone whose ideas you disagree with.

"Ted told me later, he said, 'I didn't do in Bork. Bork did in Bork.' There was some truth to that," former Sen. Simpson says.

Blattner says he believes that after Bork's nomination was defeated, Kennedy felt that the country and the Senate had undergone a referendum on what the Constitution meant, and that the important constitutional values of equality, liberty and human dignity had won.

"He wasn't afraid to lose, and that's why he won," Blattner says. "It's rare in a legislator to find someone who is both adept at forging compromise and adept at pushing the Senate to take a moral stand, even when it's an unpopular one. And it's that combination of qualities that really made him truly unique."

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