I join the chorus of those who have long admired Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s remarkable Senate career and his persistence in pushing for health care reform throughout his forty-six years on Capitol Hill. Indeed, his negotiating skills and ability to wrest compromise from his diverse colleagues will be sorely missed as the Congress faces a crucial autumn fight on how best to overhaul our ailing health care system. Nonetheless, it is instructive to look back to the late 1970s, when an uncompromising Kennedy battled his fellow Democrats on comprehensive health care reform and learned firsthand how the perfect can be the enemy of the good.
Thirty-plus years ago, I was a young health and science reporter for The Washington Star, the late, great afternoon newspaper in our nation’s capital. Then, as now, Democrats ruled the White House and Congress, the economy was hurting, and there was widespread concern about skyrocketing health care costs. I spent countless hours covering Sen. Kennedy and his media-savvy hearings on the need for health care reform, as well as behind-the scenes visits with his staff in the Russell Senate offices to gather advance information for the Star’s early edition. I traveled the country reporting on hearings held by Kennedy on the need for national health insurance.
Back then, of course, Kennedy was a potential presidential candidate, so his every move attracted massive press attention. In what may have been a model for the modern era of media coverage, Kennedy’s staff created an emotional opening to each hearing, beginning with a poignant panel of average Americans whose lives had been ruined by their health problems as well as their lack of health insurance, and the financial ruin this had brought. These stories were catnip to the television crews.
As these average citizens told their stories, the cameras on Capitol Hill rolled, capturing moving footage that guaranteed a spot on the evening news. But then, as now, the television cameras usually disappeared once they captured their images, leaving behind a lengthy hearing awash with often dry testimony by a sea of experts from labor, business, medicine, the insurance industry, and the consumer movement. These hearings frequently dragged on into the mid-afternoon, but there was only one senator who was willing to stay from start to finish—Ted Kennedy.
Other senators came and went (perhaps aware that they were unlikely to get on the news as long as Kennedy, chair of the powerful Health Subcommittee, was there). He seemed tireless, prodding and asking penetrating, substantive questions that belied the sometimes shallow media portrayal in his early career that suggested he was the lightweight among the Kennedy brothers.
Even then, Kennedy understood how to elevate an issue and build legislative support for it: hire a great staff, gather evidence, publicize your work, and persevere over the long haul. His influential chief health advisor, a Stanford doctor and personal friend named Larry Horowitz, helped fire Kennedy up for these hearings (Horowitz was the person the Senator asked to manage his treatment after discovering the brain tumor that led to his death last week). The late Walter Sheridan, a former FBI agent and powerful aide to Bobby Kennedy, was masterful at tracking down individual citizens to make the health hearings come to life. Kennedy himself was extremely media-savvy, particularly during the late 1970s, as he tantalized the public—and the press—with the prospect that he too might run for president, as he eventually did when he announced, in November 1979, that he would challenge the seemingly vulnerable sitting Democrat, Jimmy Carter.
Looking back, I realize how much this intra-party fight for the 1980 presidential nomination stood in the way of getting health reform through Congress. Kennedy positioned himself as the standard bearer of a liberal movement that had reached its high-water mark in the mid-1960s with civil rights and health legislation, including the passage of Medicare and Medicaid legislation. He gave his first major speech on the need for national health insurance in 1969, and by the late 1970s was fighting hard against the more moderate President Carter, who sought a more incremental, phased-in approach to health reform.