Known as the “Lion of the Senate,” the Massachusetts Democrat was dubbed with many other labels over the years. The ultimate liberal. A pragmatic and dogged worker. But Kennedy may be best known for his ability to buck convention, to reach across partisan lines to find consensus on issues.
“Many consider him to be the finest legislator in the last 50 years. He was respected across the aisles and could work with people opposed to him and try to find middle ground, which is what we so badly need” today, says Stuart Altman, a professor of healthcare policy at Brandeis University. Altman worked with Kennedy when Altman was a young health policy aide in President Richard Nixon's administration.
Altman met Kennedy during a pivotal point in the senator's career: when he became chairman of the Senate Health subcommittee and filed his first bill to promote universal coverage in 1971.
“I was part of the Nixon administration, therefore I looked like I was the enemy” to congressional Democrats, Altman says. Kennedy may have been suspicious of Altman when they first met, but perhaps it was the desire of each of these men to reach across the aisles that sealed their ability to work together.
“I really didn't fit the mold of what was expected out of a Nixon employee,” Altman says. In turn, Kennedy seemed to be “a pragmatic guy that wanted to do the right thing.” He and Kennedy worked together in the early 1970s to create a financing mechanism for medical schools to reward them for increasing the number of new physicians.
Kennedy was often accused by political opponents of being the ultimate liberal, but when trying to craft a bipartisan compromise he was the ultimate pragmatist, Altman says. When Nixon offered up his own reform bill, the National Health Insurance Partnership Act, “Kennedy was willing to work with us on a compromise we could all support,” despite the fact he thought the plan was more of a partnership between the administration and insurance companies than a partnership between patients and physicians, Altman says.
“He broke with advocates to support or try to come up with a truly bipartisan approach,” according to Altman.
His son Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) says Edward Kennedy's ability to broker deals, with the left and right, was his greatest accomplishment. “The lesson of his life and the lesson of his politics was perseverance,” he says.
“His greatest testaments to the legislative process was how much he did during the lean years for Democrats, the years when they didn't have the majority, when the political winds weren't blowing in their direction,” including the Reagan years, Patrick Kennedy adds.
At the same time Edward Kennedy was pushing for broader reform needs, he would look for opportunities to make incremental improvements and did so in a way that secured bipartisan support no other member of Congress was successful in achieving, says Pollack, who collaborated with Kennedy on a number of bills that were successfully enacted into law, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, State Children's Health Insurance Program and the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.
President Barack Obama last year called Kennedy “the greatest partisan in Congress,” Patrick Kennedy recalls. Edward Kennedy's liberal views, however, “didn't keep him from being so ideological that he wasn't willing to work with” GOP senators, such as Orrin Hatch of Utah on SCHIP, or Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island to pass community health center legislation in the 1970s, or Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas on HIPAA, or John McCain of Arizona on the patients' bill of rights, Patrick Kennedy says.
Some reports claim Edward Kennedy became interested in healthcare when he was laid up with a back injury after a near fatal plane crash, and had to deal with a host of caregivers in the healthcare industry. According to his son, the explanation had more to do with the medical crises that struck Kennedy's family, rather than his own experiences.
“It was a whole host of things, watching his father need round-the-clock care, convalescing from a stroke, watching his brother (President John F. Kennedy) need surgeries for back ailments, watching his son deal with cancer, knowing the other kids in the pediatric wing at the children's hospital were struggling with illness and their parents were dealing with the cost of paying for that medical care,” Patrick Kennedy says. “The notion that these children wouldn't survive because their parents couldn't afford treatment, put it over the top for him.”
Patrick Kennedy, who had childhood asthma and later battled a prescription drug addiction, says his father also had to deal with his mother's alcoholism treatments. “I think there was a very strong consciousness that we had the financial wherewithal to deal with these crises and come through them.” The fact that some people were lacking that ability “is something he really felt powerfully about.”