Fond memories of Kennedy from across the aisle

Dave Durenberger
Dave Durenberger, former Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota, is senior health policy fellow, chair of the National Institute of Health Policy and a teacher at the University of St. Thomas.
MPR file photo/Curtis Gilbert

"Not everyone who sacrifices his life for his country is wearing a uniform."

I will never forget Ted Kennedy saying those words in a conversation with Republican and Democratic Senate colleagues about public service. We were discussing our faith, our families and the friendships that had brought us to where we were.

With a Kennedy, you think of the three brothers who were killed in the line of duty, only one in a uniform. But Ted was speaking of giving your whole life in service of others, and taking consequences that may be either unpleasant or deadly.

In three terms in the Senate, I saw the famous heir to his family's legacy working the power of his name to the point of running against his own party's President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

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I experienced the better Ted Kennedy who, once resolved that he didn't have to be president to be effective, took on legislative issues others could not or would not.

The first Ted Kennedy became the champion of health care for all Americans in the 1970s and was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts -- not by President Richard Nixon, who agreed with him, or by other Republicans, as much as by conservative Southern senators and congressmen like Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long and Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills.

Kennedy chaired the Health, Education and Labor Committee and Long chaired the Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over all the various policies needed to get to universal coverage. It wasn't until late 1979 that Long invited Kennedy to appear before the Finance Committee to make his case.

The room grew increasingly silent as the time for Kennedy to appear. Finally, in he came, followed by representatives of the labor, aging and other associations for whom he carried the standard. We were indeed in the presence of "lions" in the Senate -- lions that met that day.

In person, Teddy was a human being like everyone else. He gave up drinking only during Lent, and anytime we were in evening session and he'd had a drink or two with his dinner, he'd suggest we save for the next day the amendment we planned to do together.

If you checked his weight chart in the Senate gym, you'd see it run up and down by 20 pounds or so, depending on how well he was keeping his New Year's resolutions. Every visit to his home in McLean included a tour of hundreds of family photos, along with family stories you'd never hear in public.

One day he took me aside to tell me that the British intelligence service was getting reports on all the mail going to a home in St. Paul, where one of my sons lived with a fellow waiter who happened to be running a "safe house" linked to Minnesotans for a United Ireland.

I will remember Kennedy for the day he stopped the congressional markup of the Clinton health reform bill to announce that my first grandchild, Sarah Marie Durenberger, had just arrived in this world.

I will remember him for the love that a conservative colleague and competitor, Orrin Hatch of Utah, had for him.

I will remember him as a competitor who always listened so he could learn from you, rather than "reloading" while you spoke to shoot another round.

I remember him as part of the Senate I once loved deeply for what it brought out in each of us.

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David Durenberger, former Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota, is senior health policy fellow, chair of the National Institute of Health Policy and a teacher at the University of St. Thomas.