Seigenthaler remembers a tough, yet tender, Ted Kennedy

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 11:33pm
Senator Ted Kennedy honored John Seigenthaler, left, for his years of service as chair of the Profile in Courage Award Committee at a 2008 President's Council dinner.

Since the news broke that Sen. Edward Kennedy had succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 77, Tennessee politicians with a connection to the “liberal lion” have expressed their sadness at the passing of their friend and colleague.

Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker issued statements of condolences and former Sen. Bill Frist issued a heartfelt message that stated in part, “His death is a loss not just for Massachusetts and the Senate, but for all of mankind.”

However, while never having served in the U.S. Senate, another Tennessee icon knew ‘Ted’ Kennedy better than anyone in the Volunteer State — former Tennessean publisher and editor John Seigenthaler.

Seigenthaler served as administrative assistant in 1961-62 to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They were close friends, and it was Seigenthaler who Bobby sent to the Deep South in an effort to protect the Freedom Riders at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

“I first met the Kennedys when I covered Washington in 1957-58," Seigenthaler said. “It was at the hearings on labor/management corruption and violence conducted by McClellan.”

Arkansas Sen. John McClellan headed up the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, which investigated organized crime influence in labor unions.

In 1957, Seigenthaler had written about corruption within the local branch of the Teamsters union, exposing the criminal backgrounds of key employees and the use of intimidation to get their way.

“Jack (John F. Kennedy) was the second ranking member and Bobby was chief counsel for the committee,” said Seigenthaler. “The committee did a week of hearings on stories I had written. McClellan said at the beginning of the testimony that was the case. Then Bob came down and testified in Judge Schoolfield’s impeachment,” referring to Chattanooga Criminal Court Judge Ralston Schoolfield’s impeachment trial that came as a result of Seigenthaler's reporting.

Asked how he got to know Ted Kennedy, Seigenthaler said that it was during the 1960 presidential campaign.

“Ted worked primarily in the western states and we would talk on the phone a lot and when he came into the campaign headquarters,” he said.

In 1961, with JFK in the White House, his brother Ted ran to succeed him in the U.S. Senate. Seigenthaler did not work on that campaign but remembered the class that Ted Kennedy showed during the campaign.

“He ran against Eddie McCormack, son of the soon to be Speaker of the House John McCormack,” Seigenthaler reminisced, “and Eddie's campaign punch line was saying that if Ted's last name was Moore and not Kennedy the whole thing would be a joke.

“Moore was Ted's middle name. A lot of people wanted Ted to hit back but he would say, ‘My brother represented this state with prestige and without stooping to mean spiritedness, Henry Cabot Lodge was my brother’s predecessor and I don't intend to be a Pier 6 brawler.’ ”

Obviously, Kennedy went on to win that election.

Robert's tragic campaign

In 1968, Seigenthaler took leave from Nashville to work on RFK’s presidential bid and campaigned some with Ted. The campaign was not one that Ted, or Seigenthaler, felt very enthusiastic about the election. One doesn't usually challenge the incumbent president from your own political party. Bobby saw it different and was running as a “moral imperative.”

President Lyndon Johnson wasn't focusing on civil rights and the war in Vietnam didn't seem to be on the other candidates’ main agendas before Bobby entered the race, according to Seigenthaler.

When LBJ dropped the bombshell that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election, the Kennedy's were stunned and looking to win a big primary to solidify their place on the ticket. That primary was California.

Bobby won it on June 4, 1968, but just minutes after thanking supporters, he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. He died on June 6.

“I was with Ted in San Francisco when Bob was shot,” Seigenthaler recalled. “We had talked to Bob late in the afternoon and said we would watch his victory speech at a Masonic lodge, thank supporters and then head to Los Angeles to join him the next day. After Ted thanked everyone, he went to the car, and that is where police officers told him what had happened. He quickly got us a plane to fly down to LA.

“The flight was painful and punishing, Ted kept me informed, he was solicitous of my feelings, he went out of his way to make sure that people were as concerned about me as they were about him. You don't forget moments like that. It was a solemn flight, a quick flight. It was silent and painful.”

Meant for the Senate

The flight did not end the connection the two families had as Seigenthaler's son, John Michael, interned for Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s and John was appointed by the Kennedy family to serve on the board of the Profiles in Courage award, an award is presented annually to a public official or officials at the federal, state or local level whose actions best demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership in the spirit of JFK's book, Profiles in Courage.

“For the last 10 to 12 years I have served on the Profiles in Courage committee. Ted and I talked several times a year, we had frequent contact about the work of the committee,” Seigenthaler said.

Asked what he learned from those years of discussion about Ted, Seigenthaler said, “Ted comes from one of the most liberal states. Massachusetts is a state with liberal traditions, when Mitt Romney runs for governor and endorses a woman’s right to choose, it tells you something about the state.

“Anyway, Teddy has been the point of more negative Republican commercials than any other politician, in part because he was effective and in part because he stood for issues that many in other states, especially southern states, didn't like,” Seigenthaler added. “What many didn't realize was that he understood; he'd laugh at himself about it. He had a rare ability to laugh at himself while laughing with others — he had a great Irish sense of humor. It was his way of putting down those who satirized him as the Ho Chi Minh of the American political scene.”

He believes that Ted Kennedy was more comfortable in the Senate than his brothers — it was his natural political habitat.

“There were a couple of instances during our work on the Profiles in Courage awards that impressed me,” Seigenthaler said. “If you go way back, you will recall he was sharply critical of President Gerald Ford for pardoning Nixon after Watergate. When Ford was given the Profiles award Teddy said to a crowd of over 1,000 people, ‘I criticized him at the time and now tribute him for what was an act of courage.’ [Ted] had a willingness to acknowledge other points of view and re-evaluate his own position. There was a family legacy, and he enriched it.”