After battling brain cancer for over a year, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts died overnight at his Hyannisport home. He was 77.
Congressman Barney Frank, a longtime friend and colleague of Kennedy, joined us to discuss the senator’s passing.
Bob Oakes: I’d like to ask what you think Sen. Kennedy’s loss means to you and to the congressional delegation of Massachusetts.
Congressman Barney Frank: It’s really devastating, obviously we’ve been expecting it, but you don’t prepare for something like this, emotionally, very easily.
He was a man with, among other things, a great gift for friendship. He was a guy born with a lot of advantages, and then maximized his ability to use them on behalf of other people. He was a very powerful, wealthy guy who would reach out to help others in ways that are really very unusual in politics — politics tends to be a kind of jealous business — and Sen. Kennedy really was above that in ways that almost nobody else was.
I was the recipient of generous help from him at some tough times in my career. He was a guy who would reach out, as busy as he was you’d get phone calls and notes from him. He also had this kind of infectious enthusiasm and determination to make people feel good, so that being with him was just an extraordinary good time. Even when you were working on some tense issues, he was so good to be with him.
That was true — he worked with all the members of our delegation. You know, in addition to the national goals that any of us have, there is your job to represent the specific district or state that elects you and work on those more particular issues, and he did that superbly.
You talk about contentious issues under debate in Washington, which Sen. Kennedy managed in so many ways. Issues no more contentious, I think at the moment, than the debate over health care reform and the debate over financial system reform, which you’re deeply involved in. How might Sen. Kennedy’s passing affect the chances of legislation on both of those fronts actually passing?
It’s already obviously had a very negative effect — his illness — on the health care debate. He had a great ability to keep fighting for what he thought was important and he, more than anybody in our time, fought to make this a fairer society, and understood that fairness and economic efficiency were linked, they weren’t oppositional. And I believe that if he had been healthy and fully active, the Senate would have come to some agreement on a very good health care plan.
Before this, he really was responsible for a great deal of improvements in health care: the children’s health insurance program, which finally got passed thanks to him more than anybody else, to extend health care to children of working families who couldn’t afford it. So clearly he’s been heard in health care.
And financial reform, that was not one of his major areas, but there was another major area in the country’s interest, I believe, that’s going to suffer greatly and that is immigration. He was a man whom I think would have been in the forefront — had he been healthy and if we had the blessing of his still being with us — of helping come up with an immigration reform that dealt with that very contentious problem.
Are you saying it’s less likely, or is it perhaps almost impossible, to pass health care reform or immigration reform without Ted Kennedy on Capitol Hill?
On health care, I would say harder. And probably, maybe not a bill that would be as good, from my standpoint, of extended coverage as we otherwise would have been. On immigration it is maybe even less likely. Health care is a difficult issue, but it had a broader constituency. Immigration is a tougher one. And it’s clearly made it harder to do health care, and I believe, had he been healthy, we would have had a bill out of the Senate.
It’s not simply the other senators aren’t good at this — no one was as good at it as he was. I noticed the president said, “The greatest senator of our time.” I was a fledgling political scientist before I got into active politics and I’ve kept up both. I think he’s pretty clearly the best senator in our history, from the standpoint of effectiveness and the constructive approach and the respect others had for him and the influence he got from that.
So I think when he leaves, he just leaves a hole that has been very hard for them to fill. So he’s made it much less likely that we will get immigration, though we still very well might, and he’s made it harder, and I think we’ll still get health care, but it may not be as good as it would have been if he’d been in a leadership position.
What about within the borders of the Commonwealth? What will Sen. Kennedy’s loss mean to the Commonwealth, the citizens of Massachusetts?
Well, first of all, and this is not, I think, insignificant, the pride that people had a right to feel in that they voted for the best senator in American history, that they voted for this national leader.
Secondly, his advocacy for the economic interests of their state. By the way, health care is an example. For us health care is a dual issue: It’s a way of providing very important services that we need in our lives, but health care is also as important an industry as we have in Massachusetts.
The hospitals — first-rate hospitals and medical schools — bring in a lot of money, from all over the country because of their quality; the medical instruments business, which depends in part on their closeness to them. He was a champion for our medical establishment and I think they may be a little nervous, and I’m a little nervous too.
We’re all going to work as hard as we can, we have a very influential senator, John Kerry, who’s chairman of one of the most prestigious Senate committees. Those of us in the House have accumulated a good deal of influence and seniority, but when you lose someone like Sen. Kennedy, you cannot make that up.
Congressman, your name has been floated. Will Barney Frank run for U.S. Senate?
No. I didn’t want to respond to that earlier, because with Sen. Kennedy as ill as he was, it would have been inappropriate to talk about that. In 2004, had John Kerry been elected president, I would have run for the Senate. I was then a member of the Democratic minority in the House, we didn’t have much influence — although the Republicans have since decided to blame us for everything they did or didn’t do when they were in the majority.
But now that I’m chairman of this financial service committee, and fairly deeply engaged in trying to get the financial system changed to prevent the kind of crisis we had before, it would be irresponsible for me to abandon that for a political campaign during the next few months when it’s critical for us to act. So I will absolutely not be a candidate for that seat.
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, thank you so very much for speaking with us this morning and remembering Sen. Ted Kennedy.