Leading from the Left

(Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong)

Senator Edward Kennedy speaks during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

This book review appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress
By Nick Littlefield and David Nexon
Simon & Shuster

When the Republicans under Newt Gingrich swept to victory in the 1994 elections, one exception to the tide was Edward M. Kennedy. On what was a terrible day for Democrats almost everywhere else, Kennedy weathered the toughest challenge of his career from a Republican businessman named Mitt Romney.

Kennedy was always attentive to his Massachusetts political base, but he had never had to work harder in a re-election campaign. He took out a million-dollar personal loan on his house in Virginia and rallied back not by trimming or pretending to be who he wasn’t, but by running as, well, Ted Kennedy. At a packed rally in Boston’s Faneuil Hall on October 16, he laid it out:

“I believe in a government and a senator that fight for your jobs,” Kennedy declared. “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.” If there is a ring of familiarity in those words, that is no accident. Eighteen years later, Elizabeth Warren would be elected to the seat Kennedy held for 47 years making the same appeal, and with the same result.

The fact that Kennedy succeeded against the tide of what was called the Republican Revolution gave him a certain credibility when Democrats returned to Washington. Many of them were in a defensive crouch, and President Bill Clinton was shaken by an outcome that had to be read, in part at least, as a dispiriting referendum on his first two years in office. Kennedy didn’t know from defensive. His first instinct—really his only instinct as a resolute liberal—was resistance. Kennedy was convinced that what the Republicans actually stood for was antithetical to the views of most Americans. And so he went to work. He consulted widely, organized tirelessly, and buttonholed potential allies for what he knew would be a long fight. It turned out that resistance was not only principled; it proved to be the shrewdest form of realpolitik on offer.

And being Ted Kennedy, he could call on anyone for advice and they would be glad to give him their time. He also planned meticulously. One learns from Nick Littlefield and David Nexon’s remarkable Lion of the Senate that among the many kinds of politics at which Kennedy was adept was the politics of dinners. He regularly invited smart people to his home and was determined to bring out as much from them as he could.

“He was a serious and enthusiastic host who took a personal interest in the smallest details,” they write. “He took particular care to ensure that the seating arrangement at the dining room table would be conducive to productive conservation.” He even decided on what kind of china to use, and here, at least, Kennedy may have displayed a certain elitism that was antithetical to his politics. If “guests were important enough” he’d “bring out his mother’s silver epergne, which she had passed on to him.”

In organizing to oppose Gingrich, he drew on advice from historians, political consultants, close friends, and intellectuals, including some with a long Kennedy family pedigree. And if Kennedy worried about the china, he did not stand on ceremony. If people couldn’t come to him, he’d go to them. Thus did Kennedy visit the celebrated economist John Kenneth Galbraith at his home in Cambridge a month after the Democratic disaster.

Galbraith was 86 years old at the time, but his mind was still sharp and his fighting instincts still intact. His analysis of a midterm election held more than two decades ago is, like Kennedy’s own campaign rhetoric, strikingly familiar. In the case of Galbraith’s shrewd take on why the Republicans had won, that familiarity also has a depressing quality. The challenges described by one of the greatest liberal economists of the last century still plague progressives—and in some ways might even be more acute.

“The problem is that only 38 percent of the eligible voters voted,” Galbraith said, “so the Republicans won with less than 20 percent of the vote. The essence of Democratic success is to get people to vote, as in the Roosevelt era. There is no doubt why we had a period of success. We had a big turnout among low-income people. Those who aren’t voting today are those who most need public services. It is the Republican genius to get people to stay away from voting, to keep people who would vote against them from voting. With the southerners now taking over Congress, this is the revenge of the old Confederacy.”

On the other hand, Galbraith did not believe the Republicans would deliver what the voters wanted. “The Republicans’ appeal to the middle class is a fraudulent way to release resources to the rich,” he said. “The middle class will never see any gains from the Republicans.”

One rather doubts Galbraith would say anything different in 2016.


NICK LITTLEFIELD IS THE reason why we can know so much about who said what to Kennedy, and how Kennedy girded for battle after his re-election. One of Kennedy’s closest aides, Littlefield was a meticulous note-taker with his own shorthand method, and he was at almost all the key meetings. As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin notes in her moving introduction, Littlefield “had spent summer vacations transcribing the copious notes he had taken during his years in the Senate,” and when Kennedy died in the summer of 2009, he “renewed his resolve to complete the manuscript.”

Lion of the Senate is a hugely valuable contribution to history and a fascinating tour of how politics and the Senate really work. It is also a very brave book. As Goodwin notes, in early 2011, Littlefield was diagnosed with a very rare progressive neurological disease called multiple system atrophy (MSA). As Littlefield got weaker, he asked his colleague and friend David Nexon to help him finish the book, which is told in Littlefield’s voice from beginning to end. It is thus a double labor of love—of Littlefield and Nexon for Kennedy, and of Nexon for Littlefield. We can be grateful that they persevered.

In these days of full disclosure (a habit I approve of), I should note that the editor of this book at Simon and Schuster, Alice Mayhew, is also the editor of my own forthcoming book, although she never contacted me about this one. I disclosed this fact to the Prospect’s editors and they asked me to move ahead with this review. I should also say that I knew and respected both Littlefield and Nexon when they worked for Kennedy. But in truth, anyone who wrote regularly about what Kennedy was up to in his years in the Senate eventually ran into both of them. That is precisely why they are the right team to offer this memoir.

This book is important for two overlapping reasons. The first is that like all legendary politicians, Kennedy had a career that can be read like scripture. A giant figure, his way of being a politician and a senator can be used to make utterly contradictory points about what ails politics now. Those who long for a more consensual and civil time invoke Kennedy the deal-maker, the man who assiduously cultivated friendships among Republicans and who passed a mountain of progressive legislation because he seemed always to find a Republican who shared some particular interest of his.

Above all, his close friendship with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah yielded real breakthroughs, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP, to which Littlefield and Nexon devote an enlightening chapter), the Ryan White AIDS Care bill, and a major expansion of national service (a gain regularly jeopardized by the hostility of many conservative Republicans to “paid volunteerism” and by the fact that service is not always a high priority for liberals who find themselves embattled on multiple fronts).

Littlefield and Nexon explain this side of Kennedy very well; they show why it is truly helpful in politics for a public official to like people genuinely and to be interested in what makes them tick. In some ways, Kennedy was like a Saul Alinsky organizer, always looking for the one or two areas of common interest that could bring him together with individual Republicans, even very conservative ones, around a particular cause.

But to focus on Kennedy only as a deal-maker misses how important it was for him to have a clear philosophical compass. The paradox of compromise is that politicians who know exactly where they want to go can find the give-and-take of legislating much easier than do those who either test ideas against the polls (public opinion is not static) or those who don’t have any large objectives. You can’t know how to move two steps forward and one step back if you aren’t sure of the direction in which you are walking. You cannot know the difference between a minor concession and a major betrayal of principle unless you know what your principles are.

As Paul Starr and Robert Kuttner, the founders of this magazine, wrote recently in these pages, “The idea of transcending partisan differences works only when there is some basic agreement on the ends.” Kennedy searched for agreements on ends wherever he could. He made it his business to get work done with anyone who would toil along with him. But when it was time to battle over basic purposes, Kennedy knew how to fight, unequivocally and unapologetically, for principle.

And this is where Littlefield and Nexon make their second great contribution: to an understanding of how and why Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution was largely foiled—and in particular how the large budget and tax cuts the GOP championed were stopped. The major part of Lion of the Senate is devoted to this fight—and the prime strategist was Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy knew from the beginning that he would have to become a lead organizer of the fight and that many dispirited Democrats were inclined to put up only limited resistance to the Republicans’ radical budgets. “Their thinking was that we couldn’t stop them [Republicans] no matter what we did, that the public had spoken, and we’d only make matters worse if we resisted,” the authors write.

Kennedy completely understood the pressures to capitulate. “Democrats are shattered by the results of the election,” he explained to Littlefield in December 1994. “Those who survived are looking over their shoulders at Republican challenges next time. Those who were lucky enough not to have an election this year will be doing the same.”

The task, Kennedy went on, was to persuade colleagues in his party that “the election was not a mandate for a drastic scaling back of government”—which was true—and to “hold every Republican action and every Democratic initiative to the standard of how it affects middle- and low-income Americans.” This turned out to be good strategy.


THE MOST IMPORTANT Democrat, of course, was Bill Clinton. Here, the authors do not pretend to make definitive judgments. They do not try to claim that Clinton would have capitulated if Kennedy had not been there to argue and cajole and make both the political and substantive case for blocking the big Republican cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment—these would become M2E2, the Star Wars answer to Gingrich’s Darth Vader. They write of “the president’s own divided mind and the ongoing argument within the White House.”

At times, they report, Clinton seemed to welcome Kennedy’s interventions and to see why fighting Gingrich would be in his long-term interest. In his own memoir, My Life, Clinton made clear that he knew from the start that “the new Congress, especially the House, was well to the right of the American people.” The memoir, of course, had the advantage of being written after Clinton’s budget triumphs. Still, Clinton was often in sync with Kennedy, and the authors argue that in certain respects, the two men “were soul mates—both were larger-than-life characters; both loved politics, political combat, humor and argument.”

Nonetheless, Littlefield and Nexon also stress divisions within the Clinton camp over how to respond to Gingrich and times when Clinton himself seemed inclined to make more concessions than Kennedy thought wise. Some of the president’s aides (including Dick Morris, the conservative consultant Clinton brought back after the November drubbing) thought deal-making would be better for Clinton. The whole theory of “triangulation” saw Clinton as casting himself as roughly equidistant from congressional Republicans and Democrats. This contrasted sharply with the Kennedy strategy that required Democratic unity in support of programs he was convinced the public did not want to see cut—and in opposition to tax cuts that tilted toward the best-off in which the public had no interest.

And Clinton was, at times, the least of Kennedy’s worries. Some of his own more conservative Democratic colleagues seemed eager to go along with the conservative tide. Worse still was a great deal of strategic uncertainty among Democrats. The Kennedy of this book is constantly shuttling among his party’s various factions, strengthening the will of his allies, shoring up waverers, and pointing to the strategic benefits of standing for something—and against what proved, in the long run, to be very unpopular conservative policies.

Littlefield and Nexon rightly point out one of the very worst decisions the Republicans made: to have their tax cuts add up to almost exactly the same amount as their Medicare cuts. The public might respond to anti-government appeals in theory; it surely didn’t want to slash Medicare (or “the future growth of Medicare spending,” as Gingrich preferred) in order to finance tax reductions designed to go mostly to the wealthy.

As time went on, Clinton hardened his position. The attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 by two far-right domestic terrorists inspired by racist and anti-government writings shook both the country and the political argument. The attack killed 168 people and injured nearly 700. “People should examine the consequences of what they say,” Clinton said, “and the kinds of emotions they are trying to inflame.” Gingrich was furious that anyone would link his anti-government crusade with the attacks. (“It is grotesque,” he insisted, using one of his go-to words.) Clinton had never explicitly linked Gingrich to the attacks, of course, but he knew that Oklahoma City put extreme forms of anti-government rhetoric in a very different light.

We know the ending: The Gingrich Republicans lost their fight, Clinton was re-elected handily, and the core New Deal/Great Society programs were saved. What makes Littlefield’s witness so valuable is the wealth of detail he provides. In doing so, he shows that what looks like an easy and obvious win in retrospect was far from easy; that there were many strategic stops and starts; that individuals had to make both tactical and strategic decisions—under pressure and without any guarantee of success; and that trying to move the center of the political conversation is better than chasing an elusive centrism at the very moment when it is being dragged rightward.

Kennedy showed that principle linked to a realistic understanding of what Americans want from government is always the right starting point for an intelligent progressivism. “Passivity usually doesn’t work in politics,” Littlefield and Nexon write. “The party setting the agenda, bringing energy and vitality to the contest, clear in its convictions, beats the party that is confused, sullen, reactive, defensive, incoherent and accommodating.”

Nick Littlefield admired Kennedy as a politician full of energy and allergic to being sullen, reactive, or defensive. He is leaving behind a tribute that speaks to his own passion for justice, reflected in a life devoted to a simple yet transformative idea his old boss loved to talk about: “that public service can make a difference in the lives of people.” Kennedy did that. So has Littlefield.

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