OPINION: Kennedy: Public villain, private friend

“Get the Castro brothers out of the White House.”
– Popular Mississippi bumper sticker, 1962

“The Kennedys” was a pejorative in Mississippi in the early 1960s, owing to the role of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy in forcing Ole Miss to admit a black student. That didn’t change much through the years, and when there was only one Kennedy left standing, he remained a favorite target of Mississippi politicians.
“Teddy Kennedy and the liberals in Washington” was red meat thrown out regularly by politicians in Mississippi, no doubt with an awareness of the residual resentment of many Mississippians to all things Kennedy.
The youngest of the Kennedy brothers was a convenient target. Not only did he symbolize the excesses of big government, his moral failings were a matter of very public record.
And yet …
Ted Kennedy, as we heard last week, was not a man who equated political disagreement with personal antagonism. He got along well with his fellow senators, and they respected and even liked him – however different their views.
If any two senators were an odd couple, it would have to be Kennedy and Mississippi’s James O. Eastland. Big Jim was a fiery segregationist the first three-quarters of his career in Washington before the Voting Rights Act forced him to change his tune. He was a public foe of the older two Kennedy brothers, though privately they understood each other in an old-style political sort of way.
And Eastland was fond of Ted Kennedy, a member of the Judiciary Committee he chaired, fond enough to arrange for him to be the commencement speaker at Ole Miss in Eastland’s final year in the Senate – albeit only after Eastland had decided not to run for re-election.
Similarly, conservative Republican Thad Cochran had high regard for Kennedy as a Senate colleague, and Cochran has even served on the board at the John F. Kennedy Library that selects the annual Profiles in Courage Award.
Trent Lott, as the Senate Republican leader, had a good relationship with Kennedy, even as he would vilify him on the stump back in Mississippi. And Haley Barbour, a Washington fixture during Kennedy’s prime in the Senate, went beyond what was required with his warm statement about the “liberal lion” last week.
What was it about Kennedy, who on the surface seemed so diametrically opposed to these politicians, that endeared him to them?
First, it seems, would be his charm and affability. Kennedy, whose rhetoric could be as fiery as anybody’s, in his relationships with colleagues epitomized the “disagree without being disagreeable” approach that is in short supply today. Kennedy by all accounts cared about those with whom he worked, as well as those he represented. Many acts of kindness were tangible expressions of that.
But there’s a political element that attracted Kennedy and Southern senators of a now almost bygone era to one another, it seems, and that’s this: They were deal-makers. They wanted to get things done.
Eastland was a consummate deal-maker, and he cut many with the Kennedys. Trent Lott caught grief from the hard right of his party for making deals as Senate GOP leader, but he saw deal-making as the political heritage from which he came. Thad Cochran has certainly greased the skids for a lot of deals in his time as well.
To be able to make a deal, you have to be able to trust the person you’re dealing with, and apparently Kennedy’s word was rock-solid.
The art of deal-making has fallen out of favor in Washington because in today’s ideologically charged atmosphere, a deal that gives ground is seen as surrender to the other side. A remarkable testament to Kennedy last week was a Republican senator’s statement that if he’d been well in recent months, there would already be a bipartisan deal on health care.
Deals used to be what Washington ran on. Mississippians have always been among the best relationship-builders and deal-makers. No wonder they liked Ted Kennedy, his politics aside.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio