Other segments from the episode on April 20, 2006
DATE April 20, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Senator Ted Kennedy discusses his career in the Senate
and his new book "America Back on Track"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest Ted Kennedy has represented Massachusetts in the United States Senate
for more than 43 years. He was elected to his brother John Kennedy's seat in
1962, when he was barely old enough to hold the office. Now, at age 74,
Kennedy remains a power in the Senate, negotiating recently with the White
House and Senator John McCain on immigration reform. He's still a staunch
advocate of liberal causes and recently supported Massachusetts Republican
Mitt Romney's program to expand health care for that state's uninsured.
Kennedy is running for re-election next year, and he's written a new book
outlining his policy priorities. It's called "America Back on Track."
Senator Kennedy, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Your book deals with a whole lot of areas, from health care to tax policy to
labor relations. And I think, you know, if your book were the platform of a
political candidate--you mentioned you will be running for re-election--your
opponent would probably go through here and add up all the cost of all the
additional initiatives, and there are many: increasing unemployment
compensation, increasing spending on early childhood education, college
funding, federal job training. Someone would look at this and say this is an
unrealistic classic liberal tax and spend, throw money at the problem approach
to government. Can America afford it?
Senator TED KENNEDY: Well, let's take some of these issues.
When we put into place the Cold War GI bill to pay for the education of all
the veterans that return from World War II, the Treasury's analysis of that
showed that the Treasury received $7 for every dollar it invested in
education, because these individuals had a considerable success in terms of
their life career. Sil Conti, who was a Republican congressman from
Massachusetts, and Tip O'Neill were the great advocates of that program. And,
of course, it paid for itself many, many, many times over.
Take, for example, health care. For every dollar that we are spending in
health care now, 33 cents of that is nonclinical. That's administrative costs
that are paying in now. No business could survive that. We are supporting
the information technology. Information technology, the IT, bringing
electronics into the paying of bills and the administrative costs. The
Institutes of Medicine, the Academy of Sciences said if you brought in
information technology into the current health-care system, you'd save between
150 and $175 billion a year. Do you hear me? A hundred and fifty to $175
billion a year. More than enough to afford to have a national health
Secondly, secondly, we do very poorly in the area of preventive health care.
One out of every $4 that we spend in Medicare is on diabetes. One out of
every $10 we spend on health care is on diabetes. There is a great deal that
can be done in terms of the prevention in terms of diabetes that we don't do
that can save billions and billions of dollars.
My point being is, if you have in your program a very robust preventive
health-care program, if you're using the best in terms of information
technology, we're already spending the amount of resources, overly spending or
so, and they can be used and used effectively within a Medicare system to
afford to pay for health care. Included in that was going to be mental
You know, the fact is, if we do this in the right way, if we take into
consideration prevention, if we bring into the right technologies, if we deal
with the health care in a comprehensive way, we can bring the health care--if
we have more competition in terms of the prescription drugs, we can bring the
health-care costs down and we can pass a program.
We are spending everything that needs to be spent on health care. It's just
being spent in the wrong way.
DAVIES: Well, you know, Senator, if Republican policies have, as you argue in
this book, weakened the economy and harmed the interests of so many working
Americans, really the majority of Americans, as you would argue, a lot of
people wonder why can't Democrats win more elections?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, I believe we are going to win a great deal or more
certainly in the future. I think what we have seen in the very recent past is
sort of a culture of fear that has permeated the political dialogue. I think
after 9/11, certainly the Republicans wrapped their political rhetoric and
their political campaigning around this culture of fear and the dangers of
terrorism. I think Americans are naturally very much concerned about national
security and about terrorism. And I think that that fear is basically
exploited, I think, in a very negative way and I think basically a harmful way
in terms of our country.
And when we looked at other national crisis and other national leaders,
President Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis when we almost had nuclear
confrontation, or Lincoln during the Civil War, or Franklin Roosevelt when we
really were facing enormously challenging times, in terms of the existence of
our nation, our political leaders at that time did not dwell on this politics
of fear. I think Americans have responded to it. I think--and it's been
unfortunate, but I don't think they are prepared to accept it. Certainly in
2006, I think the Democrats are going to have important victories in the House
DAVIES: We're speaking with Senator Ted Kennedy. His new book is called
"America Back on Track."
It's certainly easy enough to make the case, as you do in this book and others
have, that Americans were misled on the reasons for going to war in Iraq, and
that a lot of big mistakes have been made, and that it is not going well. But
it's difficult--I mean, your fellow senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, in
his presidential campaign found it, I think, difficult to convince that there
was a coherent alternative here. You know, once know that the war is, in
fact, with us, it is very difficult when American servicemen and women are
engaged in Iraq to know exactly what do we do. Congressman Murtha said we
should withdraw to limited areas. Is there a plan that you can present to the
American people for among Democrats on what to do now?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, first of all, the best vote I've ever cast in the United
States Senate was against going to war. And it was really based on the
testimony that we received on the Armed Services Committee where
the--those--Wes Clark, General Hoar, General Nash, many who had been the
leaders in the first Gulf War and also had been the central commanders of
Europe and had been experienced warriors from Vietnam--all recommended against
going to war for reasons that are all too familiar now. It was the military
that advised against, the civilians who wanted to go. That was a great, of
At the present time, I think, that the statements that have been made by
General Abizaid last February, General Casey last summer, that have been made
by Secretary Laird in his article in Foreign Affairs, that the large presence
of the United States military forces are inflaming the insurgency and have
become a crutch for the different factions in Iraq, for their unwillingness to
develop a national consensus and a national government, which is essential if
it's going to be able to develop the kind of security in terms of its military
as well as the police to make the legitimate decisions to govern a nation.
And that's why I believe we ought to have substantial reductions of Americans
this year. We ought to be doing that at the present time. I think if that
was the clear direction that the United States was going in, I think you would
find a changed atmosphere and a climate in Iraq where the warring factions
would recognize that they better get about the business of making a deal
before it was too late.
Clearly, that's a part of that solution. The second part has to be in trying
to bring some reconciliation among the countries in that region to recognize
they have a responsibility to be of help and assistance in that area. And I
think we have to do what can be done in terms of the reconstruction. But we
have to be dead serious about this is the transition year 2006. We--this is
going to be the year where our policy is going to shift and the policy is
going to change, and we need substantial and continuing reduction of American
DAVIES: My guest is Senator Ted Kennedy. He has a new book called "America
Back on Track." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Senator Ted Kennedy. He has a new book. It's
called "America Back on Track."
You know, Senator, few people have had the same job for 43 years, and you won
election to the United States Senate in 1962, not long after Lyndon Johnson
was majority leader. I mean, you have a long tenure in this body. How has it
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, it's a--the most dramatic shift and change has been the
force of and the presence of money, and the need and necessity for candidates
to go out and raise a lot of money and therefore draw them away from doing
what they should be doing, and that is attending to the United States Senate.
When I first arrived there, that was a 12-month job. We got--used to get the
Fourth of July and Labor Day, and we got Christmas. I was--in the mid-1960s,
we were in between Christmas and New Year's voting. At that time, it was
voting on the war in Vietnam.
We used to get back, leave late Friday afternoon and get back Sunday night to
be ready to go. Now candidates and the Senate, for all intents and purposes,
doesn't get going until Tuesday noon. And most of the senators are gone
Thursday night, back to raise the resources for their campaigns. And it's--we
are, I think, a lesser institution and failing to really deal with the--what
we should be dealing with, and that's the people's business.
I think there's a way of dealing with it. I'm a strong believer in public
financing of campaigns. In 1973, I had legislation with Hugh Scott, who is
the Republican leader, to provide public financing of House and Senate and
presidential campaigns. And we actually won it in the Senate, but we couldn't
get the House of Representatives to go along with it. They have done some in
the presidential campaigns, but it's in disfavor today. But that seems to me
to be the way that we eventually have to go because we are failing in our
responsibilities, I think, to the American people institutionally.
DAVIES: You know, Joe Klein referred you in his new book as "Ground Zero for
the party's liberal establishment." And I think there's an image of you among
some as a sort of a predictable voice of the Democratic left willing to make
an inspired speech without really getting anything done. But, you know, to
serious students of the Capitol, I think, in some respects, quite the opposite
is true. I think those who know the Senate well know that you've really
immersed yourself in the details, the nitty-gritty of legislation and really
learned to master the procedures and personal relationships of the Senate and
have a long list of accomplishments, not just bills passed but also
conservative initiatives thwarted, I mean, including the Republican Contract
for America in the mid-90s when the Democrats were in the minority in the
Senate. And I was wondering if you could talk just a little bit about your
education in the ways of the Senate. I mean, was there a time in your career
when you felt you understood how this place worked? Was there a mentor that
helped you get there?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, I think the model and the standard really was--is set by
President Kennedy and Leverett Saltonstall. They didn't team up very often.
My brother was elected to the Senate in '52. Senator Saltonstall was in
there. But I noticed that they teamed up on a number of different issues, a
lot of them related to particular regional issues. But I noticed that my
brother and Senator Saltonstall developed a New England group of Republicans
and Democrats to try to find ways of working together. I sort of grew up in
that tradition about trying to get things done. I always thought that that is
one of the principal reasons you're in the United States Senate is to get
things done. And that's the way I've tried to work in the United States
Senate, and we have had some success.
I mean, we're continuing to work now with Senator McCain on the issues of
immigration and immigration reform. Right after that, we're going to work
with Senator Specter on the voting rights extension, which is so important.
It has to be reauthorized again.
We've worked with a number of different senators over the period of time.
I've worked with Orrin Hatch on the Ryan White legislation that dealt with
AIDS, about the CHIP program, the Children's Health Insurance Program, he was
interested in children and children's issues. So we tried to do that and we
had some success.
DAVIES: Yeah, you know, I was struck by your relationships with Orrin Hatch
and Alan Simpson, who are, you know, ideologically almost polar opposite of
yours maybe. And one of the things that's interesting to me about that is
that in modern Washington, it seems to me, that whenever you have a
conversation with someone, there's always a subtext. And you must always be
thinking, `Well, what's really their agenda? What are they trying to
manipulate me into? Or how are they trying to game me?' And I wonder if it's
hard to develop relationships of trust in modern Washington. It seems like
you have with some of these senators.
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, we joke both with Senator Simpson and Orrin Hatch. We
use to say if we sponsored each other's legislation, usually one of us hasn't
read it. You know, that was--but, you know, I'd find, for example, I'd be
fighting with Orrin Hatch on the floor of the Senate on fetal transplantation.
That was a issue with regards to basic research and NIH funding. And I'd be
fighting with him in the morning, and then I'd be going down in the afternoon
working with him on the Religious Restoration Act, which we eventually got
passed, about state and federal impediments on terms of religious practices.
For example, the state may have a rule that no children can have wine or drink
wine under 16 and yet is part of the Catholic tradition in its Mass permits
them to take the wine. Well, you know, there are a number of actions that,
similar to this, in the different religions, and Orrin and I hooked up on a
way to try to protect religious rights and protect religious liberty.
So, you know, even though you differ one time, you try and find ways of
working at another. And, I think, unless you have that kind of a temperament,
if you're just going to get upset with somebody that's just going to oppose
you, you're in the wrong business, because--you got to get into another
business. But you have to look at this and try to figure, well, `I'll try and
get that person on another bill at another time.'
DAVIES: Besides the personal relationships, there are the procedures of the
Senate. And I've read that, you know, the legendary Richard Russell of
Georgia, you know, had mastered all these arcana. And I wonder has that
changed? Do you have to know a million procedural rules? And I'm wondering
whether the way the Senate operates has changed in recent years. There's been
a lot of talk that the House of Representatives now has, you know, is more
regimented and that committee hearings aren't meaningful. Have the rules of
the Senate changed in ways that really matter?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, I think that's a very keen, you know, observation. I
mean, I think that there's no question that they have. I mean, it's the, you
know, the amount of time that you will be willing to give to a particular
legislation rather than using, you know, cloture to close down the debate on a
particular issue, which is slapped down very quickly now. You know, you can
remember even the last weeks when Bill Frist introduced his very punitive
immigration legislation and then put a cloture on it before it even had a half
an hour's debate on it. And it eventually drew back on that because he knew
he probably wouldn't have gotten the cloture vote. But it's, you know, used
as sort of a threatening technique.
But what has been most dangerous is the fact that when you have conferences
that the minority isn't even included in the conference. You always, for
years, you were there. You had the conference, and you work it out as you
would a general kind of debate discussion...
DAVIES: Just to clarify for the audience, we're talking about...
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, that is a bill that passes the House.
Sen. KENNEDY: And then you have a bill that passes the Senate. And then it
goes to what they called a conference between the two to try and iron out the
difference. Now it'll just be the Republicans will only invite the
Republicans, and they'll work out the differences and just serve up the
conference report and not even bother with getting signatures from Democratic
senators on there, and jam that thing through the, if they have the votes
clearly in the House and more often than not in the Senate. And that's--the
bills always look a great deal more like the House passed bill than the Senate
passed bill and...
DAVIES: And that did not happen when Democrats controlled the Senate?
Sen. KENNEDY: No. No. It was, you know, and this is rather technical but
it's a very interesting process. When Al Simpson and I worked, for example,
on the immigration bill, you wouldn't let the bill go past the Senate until
the conference was worked out. That means we would finish with all of the
amendments, and what they have is the third reading, and then under normal
procedures, you pass the bill. Right? The leader, who it was a Democrat at
this time, would just stop. They'd have the third reading, which means you
can't amend it any further. And then he'd go to a different subject matter,
and Al Simpson and I would sit down with our committee and the House
committee, and we'd go through the difference between the House and the Senate
bill. And then if it was all right with Simpson, we would come back two weeks
later and pass the bill and pass the conference, because Simpson would say,
`Well, if you're going to go to the conference, you're going to roll me and
I'm not going to take it.' So I'd say, `Well, we're going to treat you
fairly.' And he'd say, `OK, if you're going to treat me fairly, we'll work it
out before.' And I'd say, `OK, Al, let's go to work.' And that's a way that
you work and you build some confidence, and you get a better product of it,
and that's the kind of trust that you need to try and get things done in the
Senate. And it's in short supply today.
DAVIES: Senator Ted Kennedy. His new book is "America Back on Track." He'll
be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, growing up as a Kennedy and looking after the children of
his late brothers Jack and Robert. We continue our conversation with Senator
Also "Howl," the famous beat poem by Allen Ginsberg is 50 years old and the
subject of a new collection of essays. Maureen Corrigan has a review.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
We're going back to our interview with Senator Ted Kennedy, who has written a
new book on his policy priorities called "America Back on Track." When we left
off, Kennedy was explaining when he first entered the Senate in 1962, it was a
more collegial institution. I asked him when that changed and why.
Sen. KENNEDY: First of all, the Senate is--you don't see--you're separated
much more from the members because they're not spending as much time working
in the committees. As I mentioned before in the '60s and '70s and, I think,
still a part of the '80s, you were in there all week. And also during the
evening sessions. And a lot of people stayed around on the weekends because
there was so much work to do and people really developed relationships and
friendships and willingness to try and--to work together.
Now the power of money, the willingness and the need for people to go back to
their--travel around the country to pick up money, and they're picking it up
from particular groups, and those particular groups have very special
interests in mind on particular pieces of legislation, and they are demanding
for the members of Congress how they're going to view a particular issue. And
they are very clear about what they're expecting from their members of
Congress on it. And that makes it more divisive, as well.
I mean, a big chunk of all of our problem is the money aspect of it. It's
the--I find even after having been in the Senate for the length of our time,
we've developed a lot of contacts and a lot of friends and good supporters. I
spend still a great deal of time having to raise the funds. I'm glad to do
what's necessary to have to do it, but it takes away from doing the kind of
job that you ought to be doing, and that is being the member of the United
States Congress or the Senate.
DAVIES: Well, I guess we should briefly address this issue of campaign
finance reform, because, you know, there was the reforms of the '70s and then
more recently the McCain-Feingold measure, which it seems has really failed to
keep big soft money out of elections. Why is that and where do we go from
Sen. KENNEDY: Well as, I say, I believe that what you--what is necessary,
what is called for is the public financing of elections. You know, the best
estimate now is that the lobbyists spend about $10 billion a year to influence
legislation, about $10 billion a year. That is vastly more than what would be
necessary if you had the public financing of House election, Senate elections
and presidential elections.
The principal reason that people don't want--you could do it, for example, I
think, believe that when the legislation that I introduced in the 1970s, which
was after the Watergate, I think was 8 or 10 cents a primary voter, 12 cents
in terms of a general election voter. In Massachusetts, it's somewhere around
four or $5 million to run in the state. And that's really probably plenty. I
mean, that gives you four or five weeks of television and enough to have a
pretty good ground organization. It doesn't give you, you know, 15 or 24
weeks of television, but it gives you enough so that you're able to get
Now, what happens is members of the Senate say, `Why in the world do I want to
fund an opposition, members of Congress every two years, and they're going to
get a chunk of change to run against me every two years? Why in the world do
I want that?' And why does a senator want to have a decently funded opponent
every six years to run against me? Why do I want to have that? And somebody
who was president would have a well-funded candidate to run against him every
four years. So they would rather not have that kind. They, most of them,
would rather have the existing system where they have to go on out because
they can raise a good deal more as incumbents than the challenger.
The question is what serves the country best? And the country would better be
served by having well-funded challengers that would challenge members of the
House and members of the Senate and the president. That would serve them
best. And it would also save them billions of dollars that we have as result
of the lobbying. And it would save the billions, I think, of dollars in terms
of the kind of tax loopholes that get written in by the lobbyists into the tax
bills every year that are special interests, which these lobbyists work on.
Now, those are the realities, but at this present time, people say, `Look, I
don't want my tax money used into politics.' They just don't want it. But at
the end of the day, they're getting it because they're paying for it with
these lobbying activities, and it's something that, as I have said, too often
we're getting the best Congress that money can buy. And I think it's a real
DAVIES: We're speaking with Senator Ted Kennedy. He's just written a new
book, "America Back on Track."
As a newspaper reporter covering elections for the Senate, Congress and state
and local elections for many, many years--I mean I see a distinct difference
in recent years now where if I'm covering a race of any stature, I will get
daily e-mail blasts and press releases from these political consultants, which
are just overflowing with venom and distortion, I mean to the point where
they're almost self-discrediting. There is clearly a new viciousness in the
way elections are conducted. And I have to think it's in part because these
political consultants have learned that attacks win.
How do we break the cycle? And let me just say, in my experience, I don't see
much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on this issue of
their willingness to...
Sen. KENNEDY: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...to attack and really hit hard. How do we break that cycle?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, it's difficult. You know, trying to think back when
this all started. I think, to a great extent, it started when commercials
began to go that way. I can remember a number of years ago when you had a
Tylenol commercial, you know, `Tylenol was great. Tylenol was good. Tylenol
was the best.' And then suddenly you got an ad that would be for Excedrin.
And Excedrin would say, `Tylenol is not that good, Excedrin is this much
better.' And suddenly, in the commercials, you got the naming the competitor
and downgrading the competitor in the whole range of commercials.
Now, I can remember just watching this sort of grow in the commercial areas,
you know, with regard to aspirin and Excedrin and all the other kinds of
things. All carrying...
DAVIES: It must be because it works.
Sen. KENNEDY: And it was because it worked. And I think politics jumped
right into this thing and said, `This is working over in the commercial. It's
got to work in the politics as well.' I, myself, I think, you know, it would
be good for someone who wants to do an interesting political paper on all of
that, I think it would be worthwhile to find out whether this really followed
what happened in commercial advertising. My own sense is it did.
I still think that--I remember Claiborne Pell, you know, who is not well now,
but one of the great senators, Rhode Island--he never had a negative campaign
slogan about any of his opponents. And one of the things that Claiborne--and
he always won easily, although he had a battle one time and he was running
against a very talented--a woman in Rhode Island. And they ran--finished up a
debate. They're just finishing up a debate, and they asked Claiborne, and
they said, `You've been in the Senate for some period of time. Can you name a
single thing that you're proudest of?' And he thought about it and thought
about it and, boom, the time ran out. And every one of the Pell supporters
thought, `Well, that is the end of Claiborne Pell for the United States
Senate.' And he went up 10 points. And that is because everybody in Rhode
Island was so tired of listening to politicians telling about all the things
that they did that they didn't do.
DAVIES: There was...(unintelligible)...
Sen. KENNEDY: They all knew...
Sen. KENNEDY: ...they all knew that Claiborne Pell had done the Pell Grants
in education. He had had the Seabed Treaties. He had the National Endowment
for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts. I mean, he had done
so much. He had done the rapid corridor, the train.
The...(unintelligible)...concept from Boston down to Washington was Claiborne
Pell's. But people understood what he had been doing, but they were just
tired of politicians, you know, just blowing their own horns.
So, you know, people, as we all know, are so much wiser or smarter than the
consultants or the politicians that, you know, paying attention to and
respecting their views and respecting their integrity and their awareness and
their understanding and their intelligence is something that they appreciate.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Senator Ted Kennedy. We'll talk more after a
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're talking with Senator Ted Kennedy. He's just written a new
book. It's called "America Back on Track."
You know, Senator, growing up as a Kennedy, you were, of course, part of one
of America's most prominent political families, and you write in your book
about how you learned from your family values of public service. I mean, you
know, your brother Joe having served and died in World War II. And I wonder
at what age did you become aware that as a Kennedy, great things might be
expected of you?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, I was enormously, enormously lucky as a young person. I
mean, I had a terrific grandparents that were forces in my life, that spoke to
me about bigotry and discrimination against the Irish and about the whole
immigrant past. Parents, mother and father, that were inspirational in terms
of my spiritual upbringing, had a very strong faith, which has been very
important to me. And also a love of history and an interest in political life
and books and learning and people. And then I had brothers who really taught
me about the important of service. I mean, I had--and then I was very lucky
because I saw that system work. I mean, I saw politics work. I saw the
person go out and get elected to Congress. That was a big deal. I mean, the
idea that you had a brother that was a congressman was just, I thought, was
the biggest deal that could possibly ever happen to any family. And then...
DAVIES: You were 14 when Jack was elected to Congress, right?
Sen. KENNEDY: When he was elected. And then, my God, he gets--he beats
Cabot Lodge in 1952, and this is just unheard of. And Cabot Lodge was a big
deal and a Republican, and my brother had ran a good campaign. And then in
the '60 campaign, to see that move and go. So I had seen and I still believe
in the political institution function and work because I had seen it done.
And I believe in this whole process because I've seen it work.
DAVIES: You know, Senator, as I hear you describe, you know, seeing your
brother go to Congress when you were at 14. I mean, when I was at 14, when
most people are at 14, they are utterly absorbed in themselves and their
friends and, you know, their ball games or whatever is going on at school.
And here you are, you know, in a climate where, as you said, people are really
part of a much wider world. Did it make you a more serious kid? Did you make
you think, `I need to think about how I'm going to be involved in that?' Did
you feel pressure?
Sen. KENNEDY: Not really. What--it was really the power of example. I
mean, I remember my brother, when he first got elected to Congress, bringing
me down to Washington and taking me, by myself, around to the buildings,
bringing me into the House, the House floor, bringing me over to show me the
Senate and then the Supreme Court, Library of Congress. And then giving me
this little talk, which I still use for children that come from Massachusetts
that I visit with that say `A trip like this is valuable because you see the
buildings. But to make it really valuable, take an interest for the rest of
your life what goes on inside the buildings.' That was always sort of a
throw-away line that he had for me, but it always stuck with me.
Sen. KENNEDY: And I could always remember when I'd come down from high
school, I'd go down to visit him, and, you know, I'd come in for breakfast and
I'd hear him talking about interesting things. Or at dinner time, you'd hear
him talking about interesting things. And it was really the power of example
really. It's the power of--no one was saying, `Well, you ought to do this or
you ought to do that.' It just seemed that the things that they were involved
in, my brothers--I must say my sisters as well--Eunice with Special Olympics,
144 different countries. My sister Jean, the Very Special Arts programs.
Those that have some physical disability are still able to create and do
incredible kinds of things. My sister Pat is very involved in a lot of the
literature programs in New York City. They all were very much involved, and
they were all doing interesting and involved undertakings that were involving
people and events. And politics certainly became my interest. And running
for office, I was sort of thinking about that back in college. It sort of had
an appeal to me, and I took it from there.
DAVIES: And if you could indulge one more question about your family. I know
that besides being a father to your own children, you had a very special
important role in the lives of the children of your brothers, President
Kennedy and your brother Senator Robert Kennedy, after their deaths. And
that's been described by some as that of a surrogate father. Clearly, you've
been very involved in all those kids' lives while maintaining an incredibly
active and professional public life of your own. And I'm wondering--I mean,
I'm a father of two, and we took in another kid for a couple of years when her
family was in trouble. And I have a sense of that level of responsibility.
This seems to have been an enormously full, I suppose, joy and burden to carry
for a long time while you were balancing this public life. And I'm just
wondering if there are any insights or perspective you could share about how
you have managed those competing priorities over these years?
Sen. KENNEDY: Well, this was sort of something sort of obviously unexpected
thrust on my sisters and myself, the really extraordinary wonderful
opportunity to try to make a difference in people's lives that were missing
their fathers. And it's, I think, as people find out, you know, the time and
the effort and the energy that one puts in is repaid a thousand times in what
you get back. And children go through the various phases of growing up, and
it's always a challenge these days. But I'm enormously proud of all of them
and the things that they're doing and the involvement that they're in. And
they're in a wide variety of different kinds of undertakings, I mean, whether
it's documentaries or environmental movements, a wide range of different--Save
the Children, a great many different types of activities. I'm very, very
proud of them.
One of the things we had recently, my brothers--my parents always used to take
us on a history trip. And my brother, when he was president, took us. And I
made some with my brother Bob. And we just had our last history trip which
was two weeks ago down to Harper's Ferry. We all go to the history museum the
night before and we listen about our lessons of history, what we're going to
hear about John Brown. And then we pile in a bus and go down to Harper's
Ferry and listen to the excellent presentations that are made by the Park
Service down there.
And then we've done a number of camping trips up our way. Massachusetts, of
course, is just filled with history. And my parents took all of us when we
were small. So we have a lot of fun on these trips, and it's...
Sen. KENNEDY: ...and they keep enjoying it so--I'm not as good a camper as I
used to be. I'm beginning to yield that special pleasure to some of the
DAVIES: I wonder if those are memories that some future senator is going to
share about their childhood.
Sen. KENNEDY: Yeah.
DAVIES: Well, thanks so much for spending some time with us, Senator Kennedy.
Sen. KENNEDY: All right. Listen, I appreciate it very much. Good to talk
with you. Really enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
DAVIES: Senator Ted Kennedy. His new book is "America Back on Track."
DAVIES: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a collection of essays commemorating
Allen Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan's opinion on "The Poem
That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginsberg's
most famous poem "Howl," editor Jason Shinder has assembled a new collection
of essays called "The Poem that Changed America." Book critic Maureen Corrigan
has a review. Here is Ginsberg reading the opening of "Howl," recorded in
Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG: (Reading) "I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through
the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix."
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: I've seen the best minds of a later generation zone
out as soon as Ginsberg begins intoning those immortal opening lines. OK,
they aren't always the best minds but they are college students, and the first
few year I taught "Howl," my students' Pavlovian response to what undeniably
sounds like a big poetic pronouncement was to flip open their notebooks, pick
up a pen and glaze over.
To combat this robotic reaction to a poem that indicts robotic behavior, I
began to invite my students to leave their books and desks behind, sit on the
classroom floor and just listen to the recording of Ginsberg reading. That's
worked better. The students sometimes start snapping their fingers and
muttering beatnik phrases like "Cool, man." But at least they're not taking
notes for the inevitable exam.
"Howl" is a tough poem to teach. Students these days treat it either with
solemnity or silliness. Admittedly, "There are stretches of "Howl" that are
just plain dull," to quote the verdict of Lionel Trilling, one of the poem's
original detractors. The lines that are most decidedly not dull, all those
sexual references that were the focus of the poem's 1957 obscenity trial, now
elicits sniggers rather than shock. And yet, amidst all of what the poem
itself calls "stanzas of jibberish," there are images and cadences in "Howl"
that still seem so buoyant they fly off the page and a susceptible reader just
can't help but try to flag down one of Ginsberg's drunken taxicabs of absolute
reality and chase after them.
For 50 years, "Howl" has packed a charge larger than the sum of all its messy,
sometimes mediocre, sometimes wondrous parts. To commemorate the cultural
phenomenon of "Howl," Jason Shinder, who was a friend and assistant to
Ginsberg, has gathered together essays by a lot of mostly smart writers
reflecting on their earlier encounters with the poem. The collection, called
"The Poem that Changed America," is as all over the map as "Howl" itself. The
act of ruminating on "Howl" seems to have inspired some of these writers to
embrace that most idiotic of beat-writing pronouncements, first thought-best
thought. And so we have this spontaneous effusion from Rick Moody. Because
of FCC regulations, every time I get to a certain word that rhymes with
"duck," I'll just say bleep.
"What I hated about poetry," Moody recalls, "was Robert Frost. Bleep Robert
Frost. Bleep stopping in woods on a snowy evening. I hated Robert Frost.
Bleep nature imagery. Bleep meter."
Bleep, I never thought about Frost that way. Other bebops rants on "Howl."
Spew author Mary Boratha and Andrei Codrescu, who oh-so-archly credits the
poem with propelling him out of Transylvania onto our shores, where he could
howl himself. Go back to the castle, Count.
But for every writer in this collection who consciously or not tries to
out-Ginsberg Ginsberg, there are two or three thoughtful writers who speak
genuinely to the uneven greatness of the poem. Sven Birkerts confesses that
"Howl" caused him to glamorize psychosis when he first read it. But he also
celebrates what he eloquently calls "its sense of enunciatory risk."
In a short charged piece, Marge Piercy recalls hearing Ginsberg read "Howl"
for the first time. She was a secretary trying to write poetry. And, as she
says, `He reopened the world to me.'
And in one of the sharpest essays in the collection, David Gates talks about
how something has been lost by our welcoming "Howl" into the cannon, the
possibility of another "Howl."
Every writer here who knew Ginsberg personally talks about what a kind man,
what a mensch he was. I have proof of that hanging above my desk. I once had
a student, one of the golden ones who didn't take notes or snigger when he
listened to "Howl." This student was so blown away by the poem that he went
off to hear Ginsberg read when he came to town, and he told Ginsberg about
studying "Howl" in my class. Ginsberg responded by drawing a picture for me
on a piece of scrap paper, a picture of a frowning Buddha. Because, as he
told my student, teaching is hard, especially hard when it comes to teaching
the elusive, irritating magical "Howl." But as so many of these essays also
attest, still worth trying to do.
Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author
of the memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." She reviewed "The Poem that
Changed America: "Howl" at Fifty," edited by Jason Shinder.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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