Wednesday, May 21, 2008
That's what we are. I don't just mean the real Kennedys, the people who are related to what will always be, for my generation, the closest thing America has to royalty. I mean those of us who worked for him and with him at any point in those 45 years. You join a family, and you never leave.
So it was that on Saturday, when the phone rang and I learned that "the Senator," as we always call him, had had a seizure, and today, when "glioma" shattered my computer screen, I picked up the phone to call. That's what we do. Phone lines burning. Everyone calls everyone. Hold on, is the official unofficial word. Everybody knows glioma is bad. But we don't know anything about size yet. Size matters. Hard to laugh. The location is "good," as these things go. No one is giving up yet. Of course not. That's not the way we do things in this family.
I've worked for lots of politicians in my time and remain very fond of all of them. But there is nothing quite like the Kennedy family. What explains it has a great deal to do with the man and the mission.
I worked for Ted Kennedy when he was chair of the Judiciary Committee, when he ran for president and then on his Senate staff. They were turbulent times, people getting hired and fired, a huge presidential campaign-sized staff shrinking to a post-Reagan, Republican Senate-sized one. Smart, intensely competitive people jockeying for position. Everyone competing for the Senator's time, attention, ear. It was not an easy place to work. The loyalty of the Kennedy family is not based on the job being easy or pleasant.
It's about something else. The integrity of the fight. The commitment to principles first. The fact that you are joined in a fight that is as big as the first family in American politics and as small as that one person who needs help, and that both count.
In May 1980, I was standing toward the back in a Temple in Livingston, N.J., where the Senator was speaking to a crowded room. A woman in the back waved her arm, and he called on her. She asked him what his position was on helping Iranian Jews stranded under the new regime, unable to leave the country to join family in America. I had done the briefing book for the event, and I knew there was nothing there on Iranian Jews. The Senator caught my eye, and I was sure he hadn't anticipated the question any more than I had. "I'm not sure what we can do to help," he said. "But I want you to talk to my staff member at the back of the room, Susan Estrich, and we'll help you."
And we did. I can't tell you how many times the Senator checked back with me to find out if I had followed up on the woman's problem. The late Jerry Tinker, who spent decades as the Senator's chief immigration counsel, made calls, and so did I. It took a few months, long after the presidential campaign had ended and the Senator was no longer seeking the votes of people in New Jersey. (I don't think the woman was a citizen yet, anyway. She had just come to the event to ask the question.) But we got visas for that family. Lives saved. Another day in Sen. Kennedy's office. That was our job because it was his job.
It has been more than two decades since I left "the office," but it's still the first place I call when the bureaucracy seems impenetrable, when a little guy or gal needs someone to stand up for them. With all due respect to the other senator from Massachusetts, the two senators from California, where I live now, and all the members of Congress who have represented me, gone to school with me, whom I have supported and befriended, the one place I know where they will always stand up for somebody just because it's the right thing to do is Sen. Kennedy's office.
I call Esther now instead of Jerry. She moves the mountains these days. But behind all of them, all of us, is the Senator.
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