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A year after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is still working hard to advance the priorities he has stood for throughout his career in the Senate — especially health care. On Monday, the senator introduced legislation that would guarantee up to seven paid sick days a year to employees and their children in case of illness.
WEB EXTRA: Is Ted the 'most under-appreciated' of all the Kennedys?
Kennedy's professional and private life are chronicled in a new book being released Tuesday, "Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died," by Edward Klein. In an interview with us, Klein provided new details about the day last year in May when Sen. Kennedy first collapsed.
EDWARD KLEIN: He was with his two Portugese water dogs, and he was taking them for a walk and, suddenly, without any warning whatosever, he felt a tightness in his jaw and down one side of his arm.
And later he told one of his nephews, as he fell to the sand, that he thought he was going to experience a stroke, "Just like Pop" — old Joe Kennedy, his father. And that he would be paralyzed and remain that way until the rest of his life, and it scared him terribly.
Because Joe Kennedy, the father, suffered that way for years — in a body wracked by stroke and a mind that was apparently still active.
KLEIN: Well, exactly. So that Ted has feared all his life — I think in part because he's lived such a dissolute life for so many years, of drinking and carousing and so forth — that he was going to do such damage to his body that he would end up like his father, imprisoned in a body in which he could think but not act.
But not so, since it's been a year since the attack and the diagnosis. And there were medical experts who were not going to give him a year to live, much less thrive — thrive in scale, I suppose. But he's working, has returned on occasion to the Senate. Are you surprised by his recovery in this last year?
KLEIN: I'm as surprised as his doctors and the other members of the medical community, all of whom told me that a man of his age has between six months, at most, to live. And here it is a year later, he looks great, he's working very hard — as we all know — I think it's been nothing less than miraculous and a testimony to his determination to create this legacy for himself before he passes from the scene.
How does the legacy continue? The question has been raised: Who might succeed Ted Kennedy as the family leader, and maybe as the next U.S. senator from Massachusetts. And you write in the book about the conflict between Ted Kennedy's wife, Vicki, and his nephew, former Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy. Tell us about that.
KLEIN: Well, Joe, as the oldest of all the cousins, has always thought of himself as the natural heir, and along comes — in 1992 — Ted's marriage to Vicki, who comes from a political family, is a lawyer and has gradually become Kennedy's chief advisor, consigliere, caretaker, the person who really controls his life.
And it is my understanding from my sources that Vicki and her father, Edmund, have more or less convinced Ted that, when the time comes, that Vicki should step into his shoes. And of course Joe doesn't like that. I think we will likely see an intra-family battle royal over who is going to succeed the Senator in the senate.
Joe Kennedy, in a recent interview, dismisses your claims as gossip. What do you say to that?
KLEIN: Yes, of course, he has to, and I can understand why. It would be very unseemly for him to be public about his ambitions. But, it is a given that Joe wants this seat.
What do the Kennedy family confidantes tell you about which of the two they'd prefer if they have a choice.
KLEIN: On the one hand, within the family, Vicki is not very popular. Vicki felt that so much of Ted's life was the wrong people, the wrong places, the wrong times, which led him astray — especially in his drinking and of course his womanizing. So she felt that he needed a strong personality like herself.
That has created a lot of anxiety and resentment within the family. So, you'd say, well that means that they're rooting within the family for Joe. And I don't think that's necessarily the case. Because, within the family, Joe has been the kind of guy who's stepped on a lot of toes. But, he has a tremendous name recognition in Massachusetts thanks to Citizens Oil.
What about the senator himself? How do you imagine he's weighing in?
KLEIN: It would be my guess that he feels a very close connection to Vicki.
Let me ask you one more question about Vicki before we move on. Is she politically ambitious? Do you think that she would want the seat?
KLEIN: Everybody whom I spoke to has told me that Vicki is enormously ambitious and she would like to be the next senator from Massachusetts.
Sen. Kennedy was very warmly received on Capitol Hill after his winter in Florida, but his colleagues told you that they were shocked by how much his physical state had diminished. Is the "Lion of the Senate" still a lion in their eyes though?
KLEIN: I think he's a beloved figure in the Senate. I think there has to be a question in everybody's mind: How much energy, endurance, does Sen. Kennedy have and how long will he be around?
He has surprised and delighted everybody with his perseverance and endurance, but in the Senate, any sign of weakness is a very serious drawback. Because somebody, sensing a vacuum of power, will move in.
Ted Kennedy, given his experience, must also know that a power vacuum in Washington will create problems for him as he tries to pursue and push national health care as his signature issue. So how do you think he'll react? Will he be out there as much as he possibly can be — will this drive him?
KLEIN: The senator has said to more than one of his friends that he thinks he'll have to go back for another operation. However, his surgeon at Duke University told me that there is no operation scheduled. Which would lead one to believe that this may not be a real option for the senator.
I think the senator is a very sick man. I think he is also a Kennedy and has resources that most people don't have.
So I certainly can't predict whether he'll be able to continue long enough to cap his career by being there when the health-care legislation is signed. But I think he has to know that it's a race against time.
Edward Klein is the former foreign editor of Newsweek and the former editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. He contributes to Vanity Fair and Parade, and has written several biographies on the Kennedy family.
This program aired on May 19, 2009.
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