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Sen. Kirk: We Are Not Re-Electing Kennedy

Paul Kirk on Capitol Hill in late September, when he was appointed interim U.S. senator following the death of his longtime friend and colleague, Edward M. Kennedy (AP)
Paul Kirk on Capitol Hill in late September, when he was appointed interim U.S. senator following the death of his longtime friend and colleague, Edward M. Kennedy (AP)

Interim U.S. Sen. Paul Kirk supports Democrat Martha Coakley as the candidate to succeed Edward M. Kennedy in the Senate, but he says he thinks both Coakley and Massachusetts voters know she won't fill the late senator's shoes.

"She'll have to be measured on her own, and I'm sure that's the way she wants to be measured," Kirk told WBUR's Bob Oakes in one of the few interviews he's granted since being appointed temporarily to Kennedy's seat following the senator's death in August.

Kirk, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is a longtime friend of Kennedy's. He spoke to Oakes about the race for a permanent successor, the state of health care reform on the Hill and the honor and humility of sitting at the desk of the man he calls "the most effective United States senator in our country's history."


Bob Oakes: Do you feel Sen. Kennedy's presence every day down there?

Paul Kirk: Absolutely. It's hard not to. Plus, by having folks that were on his staff, serving in his office, there isn't any question about feeling his presence and, you know, missing him.

So it's a complicated personal plus responsibility to sit at his desk in the chamber of the United States Senate during this historic time. Keeps one mindful of 47 years of his tenure in the Senate and why he was the most effective United States senator in our country's history.

Senator, you've kept what some people call a fairly low public profile since assuming the Senate seat. Why is that?

"It’s not been fun — because the work is serious, the topics are serious and consequential for our country and our people."

--Interim Sen. Paul J. Kirk

Well, it wasn't necessarily deliberate. I think there's a balance between keeping your head down and getting your job done, and on the other side of it just looking for news.

So I don't know other people would expect — someone filling this vacancy would expect — that he or she would get the attention that a Sen. Ted Kennedy has earned and deserved. I'm here with, I would say, a healthy dose of humility and yet a sense of honor to be in the United States Senate.

I would say that it's not been fun, because the work is serious, the topics are serious and consequential for our country and our people. I think I hope to look back on it with a considerable sense of satisfaction and gratification.

It's interesting because you talk about the fact that you're following up on Ted Kennedy's work, and you are sitting in some of the discussions of the most important topics of the day: National health care reform, the war in Afghanistan.

As an interim senator, and yet a person with a lot of Washington experience in your background, do you feel like you have influence in the discussions on these important topics of the day?

Well, other senators have told me not to underestimate the degree of influence I might have over issues and the dialogue. Other senators have said, when you're here only for a short time, but it's an historic time for decisions that are gonna be made by the Senate and the Congress.

Lifelong friends: Kirk and Kennedy in 1989. (AP)
Lifelong friends: Kirk and Kennedy in 1989. (AP)

What do you think you've been able to accomplish or will be able to accomplish in your time there, before you give up the seat to the person who wins the Jan. 19 special election in Massachusetts?

Well I think the ultimate is, now, as we go through the different procedures on the health care bill, Republicans are doing everything they can to impede and delay, and every time they do, it requires 60 votes from the Democrats to get the job done.

So, you know, I'm glad to be here to effect that.

How optimistic are you that Sen. Kennedy's signature issue — national health care reform --  will move forward and will be passed by this Senate, whether you're there or not.

I feel optimistic, Bob, because this is, in my view, the most historic and important piece of domestic legislation since social security. And I think — the reason I'm optimistic about it — is I don't think any of the 60 senators, which include some independents, I believe every one of them are fully cognizant that this is historic.

They, as a group, want to be on the enlightened edge of history as it moves forward.

You've said that you're going to support Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat. To what extent should Coakley invoke the Kennedy legacy in her campaign, do you think?

Listen: The Extended Interview

http://audio.wbur.org/storage/2009/12/news_1212_kirk-web.mp3
Well I think just in mentioning what history's about, I don't find that there's any problem in reciting history. I think the voters — and Martha Coakley or myself or anyone else — understand that we're not re-electing Ted Kennedy. And that's a miss and a sorrow that we all share.

But the voters want to take stock of who it is that is going to the United States Senate to succeed him. So she'll have to be measured on her own, and I'm sure that's the way she wants to be measured. I think that's the responsibility that the candidate has and that's the responsibility the voters have.

So what's next for Sen. Kirk after the next senator arrives on the job?

Uh, that's a good question (laughs). But one I can't really answer because it's something I'll have to think about. I did have to, you know, disconnect myself and resign from three public boards and a number of non-profit boards and from a law firm with which I was associated.

So I've still got a lot of energy and spunk left and will try to figure out what's next for me when my term is up here next month.

Sen. Kirk, thank you very much for speaking with us, we very much appreciate it.

Always a pleasure, Bob. I wish you and your listeners all the best for the holidays.

This program aired on December 14, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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