Adam Clymer, New York Times Washington Correspondent
Note: On April 10, 2000, Adam Clymer came to Brown University for a lecture about his new book, Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. A reporter and editor at the New York Times since 1977, Clymer discussed after his speech his view of Senator Kennedy, Kennedy's relationship with his son Patrick Kennedy, how Ted was affected by the death of John Kennedy, Jr. and Ted's role in the United States Senate.
Q. How was Ted Kennedy's philosophy affected by the deaths of his brothers?
A. He was a relatively young Senator at the time of their deaths in 1963 and 1968. So in a sense, his philosophy still was being formed. There was a very deliberate sense of picking up some of their issues. In 1965, the first bill he managed was an immigration bill that had been Jack's cause. It was a bill that eliminated the national origins quotas and the Asian exclusions that were part of our immigration policy at the time. He picked up a number of Robert's causes including hunger in particular and matters like that. I think he has felt it important to carry forward the things they would have done. But it has been a long while now and I think he is his own man. He may be where they would have come to. It is hard when you think about the Kennedys because he is the only one we have known long enough to see him grow grey. His brothers died in their 40s and he is 68 at this point. It matters to him. He talks of them with great affection and respect. But by now, he is plainly his own man.
Q. How would you describe his relationship with his son Patrick?
A. I think they are very close. They have lunch once a week if they possibly can in Washington. I think what Patrick says about his father is that his father is his hero for the causes he had led. I happened to mention once to Patrick once when we were talking about his father's speechmaking. This was around 1995. You know that Senator Kennedy sometimes lets his mind move faster than his mouth and speaks with the minimum use of verbs. Sometimes he is hard to understand if you read the transcript. I told Patrick of the time that Helen DeWar of the Washington Post and I have interviewed Kennedy late at night. We knew exactly what he meant about the civil rights bill, but we looked at our notes and we listened to the tape, but we couldn't string together four words worth of a solid quote. But we knew what was on his mind. I told Patrick that on the contrary, there was one time the previous year when he was rallying support for national health insurance and he talked five minutes extemporaneously to this group and I taped it and transcribed it and I found that every one of them was a perfect sentence that could be diagrammed. Patrick asked me for a copy. Ted admires Patrick and maybe even admires him for not always taking his advice. It is clear that Ted would like to have seen Patrick run for the Senate for Chafee's seat once Chafee announced his retirement. But Patrick didn't want it. He wanted to do something else. I am not sure that Ted that it was a brilliant idea for Patrick to run for the legislature in the first place here. Once he decided he was doing it, he pitched in to help. He told me he admires the way Patrick stays in touch with the legislature and his friends from the legislature here. He talked about how at one point when the federal law, some aspect of the Brady bill no longer applied, he got Rhode Island to pass an equivalent measure. But I think it is a very close relationshp.
Q. How was Ted affected by the death of John Kennedy, Jr.?
A. That bothered him a lot. He carries a lot of scar tissue on these things. He has delivered more eulogies than anyone who is not an ordained minister that I can think of. But Ted's role is a father figure in the family. It is more obvious when it comes to Robert's kids. Jackie raised her children at a little distance from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis. But yet there are pictures of Ted and John and Caroline as children, and they are obviously close. Caroline took on an interest and responsibility for the Kennedy Library. John took onto the Institute of Politics at Harvard. At first, he wasn't terribly interested in it. Ted kept getting him interested in it. John would have become head of the board of directors of the Institute this last fall had he lived. In that wonderful eulogy that he gave, someone asked John "what's the first thing you would do if you woke up one morning and discovered that you were president," and John replied, "I guess I would call up Uncle Ted and gloat!" There's that element to it and how they always hoped that John would live to comb grey hair, but like his father and his uncle, he had every gift but the gift of years. He was close and he was sorrowed by it. He has been through it before and it probably helps a bit. But it meant a lot to him.
Q. Can you talk about his role in the Senate? What is the role of his reputation within the Senate? How has he managed to craft so much credibility?
A. He started by impressing his elders in the 60s as someone who worked hard and didn't speak a lot. It was more than a year after he got to the Senate before he made his maiden speech. He would simply go and listen, even to committees he wasn't on. That even impressed Lyndon Johnson, who didn't have much use for Kennedys in general. He worked across party lines. There also is a sense in the Senate that you have opponents, but someday they may be someone to work with. He also has gotten an incredible reputation for keeping his word. Bob Dole, who doesn't really like Ted Kennedy, told me that there was a bill a few years back about bombing abortion clinics. Dole said he was willing to stop fighting it if Kennedy would guarantee to get the penalties reduced so they weren't so severe as they were in the bill at the time. Not only did he do that in the Senate, Kennedy assured Dole he would get it through the conference committee with the House. Dole said you could take that to the bank. He gets under Trent Lott's skin and a few Republicans. But everyone in the place knows that this is a guy who is seriously concerned with making laws and a lot of people there aren't. He enjoys tremendous respect. If you ever watch a Senate roll call on C-SPAN, look at Kennedy. What you will see is Kennedy talking to more individual Senators during that 15 or 20 minute time when the Senate stops being a hundred offices and becomes one body. He has got something to talk to Senator Frist about, can they co-sponsor a bill. He talks to someone else about his amendment. He'll be asking when this bill is going to come for a vote. He used that time. Some of that goes back to his earliest days in the Senate. The Senate was a much smaller place then. Staffs were smaller. No Senator had so many aides that he could think that any answer to public policy could be found within his staff. Senators relied on each other. They would look for others who were generally like-minded and expert on something. Kennedy would consult George McGovern of South Dakota about farm policy and take his advice on that. It was a much more personal place. Kennedy retains the sense that it can be used that way. His staff always says that he displays a remarkable willingness when they say they have gone as far with another Senator's staff, that it is time for him to step in and call a Senator directly. He is available to get things done. That is how he works there.