JACKSON – It often seemed over the years as if Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy was running for office in Mississippi, based on the frequent use of his name by state Republican politicians looking to tie their opponents to liberals in the national Democratic Party.
But even his philosophical opposites among Mississippi politicians gave him his due as a political giant and cordial foe in the wake of his death late Tuesday.
“Sen. Kennedy was an extremely effective legislator who made a huge impact on federal policy,” Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement. “Despite our differences on issues, Sen. Kennedy was unfailingly affable and cordial to me, and I was saddened to learn of his death. His illustrious family has lost a lion.”
Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who succeeded longtime Mississippi Democrat James O. Eastland in the Senate in 1979, served on the Judiciary Committee after Kennedy followed Eastland as chairman.
“Sen. Kennedy developed a personal rapport with each of the members, and he ran the committee in a very professional way,” Cochran said in an interview.
“He was an emerging national figure at the time, and the liberal community was absolutely ecstatic about it. I think it’s safe to say some of the things he did would not have pleased the senator from Doddsville,” he said, referring to Eastland.
Cochran, who plans to attend Kennedy’s funeral Saturday in Boston, recalled that Kennedy traveled to Mississippi at his invitation after Hurricane Katrina and was instrumental in helping obtain federal relief funds.
Republican Roger Wicker, the state’s junior senator, said he was sorry to hear about Kennedy’s death but did not get to know him very well.
“He was ill when I got to the Senate and was out a lot of the time,” Wicker said.
Those Mississippians closer to him politically praised Kennedy’s contributions.
“Sen. Kennedy was a great American statesman,” said former Gov. William Winter, a staunch Democrat. “Regardless of whether you agreed with him or not, I think he was universally respected in the Senate and by those in and out of government.”
Kennedy was part of a political dynasty with a major impact on Mississippi through the years.
The most dramatic and best-chronicled entrance of the Kennedys into Mississippi occurred in 1962 with the enforced integration of the University of Mississippi by Kennedy’s brothers, President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Only four years after the accompanying riots, then-Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York spoke at the newly opened Tad Smith Coliseum on the Ole Miss campus to a generally receptive and appreciative audience.
In 1978, Ted Kennedy spoke at the same Ole Miss campus at graduation at the behest of his good friend, Sen. Eastland, a fellow Democrat who battled the Kennedys on many issues while teaming with them on others.
Longtime Mississippi civil rights activist Charles Evers told the Associated Press he took Ted Kennedy on tours of poverty-stricken areas of the state in the 1970s and ’80s. Robert Kennedy, an Evers friend, came to the Delta in the late ’60s to shine a light on poverty there.
“America has lost one giant,” Evers said Wednesday.
Winter, a racial moderate in the context of 1960s Mississippi politics and in more recent years a fervent worker for racial reconciliation, was awarded the John Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in May 2008. He was presented the award by Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president.
It was only a week later that Kennedy became ill with the brain cancer that eventually would take his life.
“I did not know Ted Kennedy well, but I had known him over the years,” Winter said.
In 1980, when Kennedy challenged then-President Jimmy Carter’s re-election effort in the Democratic primaries, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, traveled to Jackson and had breakfast with a newly elected Gov. Winter and asked him to support her brother-in-law.
“We received her very hospitably, but explained that I was committed to my fellow Southern governor, but that I had a lot of respect for Ted Kennedy and that respect grew as I got to know him better,” Winter said.
But in 1980, the Mississippi delegation, led by Winter, was the only delegation to cast a unanimous vote for Carter at the Democratic National Convention.
State Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, was a member of that delegation in 1980s, as he was this past year, when an ailing Ted Kennedy spoke to the Democratic convention in Denver and proclaimed, “the dream lives on.”
“The Kennedy name is so important in America – especially for African-Americans and poor people,” said Jordan.
But the Kennedy name also has been used to connote negative images for many Mississippians – whether because of his liberal philosophy or incidents early in his life when some say a drinking problem clouded his judgment.
Republicans in Mississippi routinely used Kennedy as a rhetorical punching bag through the years.
At the 2004 Neshoba County Fair, Barbour conjured up some of those images and then gave Kennedy a backhanded compliment as he criticized fellow Massachusetts Sen. and then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
“John Kerry has a more liberal voting record than Teddy Kennedy,” Barbour said. “…In fact, John Kerry is Teddy Kennedy’s ideological twin. Kerry is just the taller, thinner version.
“The only difference between Kennedy and Kerry is that if Kennedy tells you something, you can count on it.”
Daily Journal editorial page editor Joe Rutherford contributed to this story.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal