Kennedy & Hatch: The 'odd couple' who got things done

Published August 26, 2009 4:23 pm
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For decades, two opposing giants of the Senate crossed the aisle to work together, ensuring millions of underprivileged children could see a doctor, that the disabled could seek equal rights and to gather an army of volunteers to serve America's depressed areas.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion from New England and Sen. Orrin Hatch, the conservative Mormon from Utah, joined forces on some of the most sweeping legislation in the last decades -- an "Odd Couple" relationship that sliced through partisan gridlock in a way only a time-tested friendship could.

On Tuesday night, Kennedy, the youngest of an American political dynasty, succumbed to a cancerous brain tumor, ending that powerful duo of the Senate whose late-night chats could often strike a compromise amid unyielding rancor.

"I prayed that there would be a miracle, but I knew he was going to die," Hatch said Wednesday in Salt Lake City.

Their last conversation, about a month ago, included talk of a health-care reform compromise, Hatch said.

"He said, 'I want to do it with you,' " Hatch said. "I said, 'Well, tell your staff to work with me and we'll get it done.' "

Earlier Wednesday, Hatch had referred to Kennedy as "an iconic, larger than life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated," and a treasured friend.

"Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy's name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber."

Some 32 years ago, Hatch came to the Senate looking for a battle with Kennedy, telling the Boston Globe that he ran for office with one goal in mind: "To fight Ted Kennedy."

"I thought he stood for everything I did not," Hatch said, according to the book "Last Lion: The fall and rise of Ted Kennedy," written by Globe staffers. "I thought someone had to take him on and I just didn't see anyone that was doing it."

Hatch, then a starry-eyed, conservative novice, soon learned that fighting alone wouldn't accomplish much. The two were forced together in the late 1970s when they served on the Senate's Labor and Human Resources committee and the relationship deepened when they found themselves on the Judiciary Committee.

Hatch learned he could trust his liberal colleague.

"If he gave his word, he kept his word," Hatch said Wednesday.

Kennedy said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune in 2005 that their friendship blossomed at a time when being a senator also meant being a statesman.

"We developed a relationship at a different time in terms of the Senate," Kennedy said. "And the way senators sort of dealt with each other and got along with each other was a higher degree of comity in those days. And I think that's served us well and has continued and gone through even the more divisive period that we find ourselves in now."

Hatch termed it differently: "We're like two brothers who fight each other all the time, but deep down care about each other."

Asked whether compromise remains possible in today's polarized Congress, Hatch said it is if another statesman like Kennedy steps forward.

"I hope there will arise on his side someone who's willing to put it together," Hatch said.

Only a few months ago, the two celebrated what would become their last legislative accomplishment: tripling the AmeriCorp volunteer program and boosting the education stipends participants receive. Hatch took fire from conservatives for his effort.

Undeterred, Hatch seized a moment before the Senate was about to overwhelmingly pass the bill and moved to rename it in Kennedy's honor.

In one of his last appearances on the Senate floor, Kennedy thanked Hatch for coming up with the idea behind the legislation.

"I know when we work together, our friends on both sides of the aisle get suspicious, but as always, we came up with a bipartisan product the Senate can be proud of, and we made it stronger by working through our disagreements," Kennedy said.

Hatch called Kennedy "one of my dearest friends" and said that while they have worked on hundreds of bills together, this one seemed special.

"Although there have been numerous legislative efforts to bear the Kennedy-Hatch, Hatch-Kennedy label, depending on who is in the majority, I have never been more pleased with a bill than I am with this one," Hatch told his colleagues. "I know he feels much the same way."

The news that Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in May 2008 shocked and saddened the Washington establishment, none more so than Hatch.

A month after Kennedy's diagnosis, Hatch penned a song in his honor called "Headed Home:"

"Just honor him / honor him / and every fear will be a thing of the past. America / America / we're headed home / we're headed home at last."

Hatch said the song, which included references to Kennedy's love of sailing, was intended to mark his triumphant return to the Senate.

But in the 15 months since his diagnosis, Kennedy found it increasingly difficult to return to his Senate "home."

In one of his last visits to the chamber, Hatch and Kennedy snuck away to Kennedy's hideaway office to discuss health-care reform. The moment wasn't lost on either senator, both realizing it might be the last time they spoke in person.

As Kennedy's illness grew more pervasive, so did the fiery rhetoric over health care reform. There was no Hatch-Kennedy, Kennedy-Hatch partnership to calm the Senate waters.

Hatch now has largely withdrawn himself from the health-care debate, instead acting as one of the Republican's fiercest critics of the Democratic plans.

In many ways, he sees this as a lost opportunity.

"If [Kennedy] was up there full time working on this, I have no doubt that would be of great help because he does actually have the ability to bring together all of the funding groups of the Democratic party," Hatch said in a recent interview. "I don't know of another Democrat who has that kind of swat today."

Although Hatch opposes a single-payer government health system and Kennedy supported it, Hatch said, he believes they would have reached a compromise.

"Had he been well, there's no question that the first thing he would have done is call me," Hatch said. "We would have been able to put it together."

Beyond the Senate collaboration, the two have often talked about the bond forged by politics extending to improvements in both their lives.

Hatch, who eschews alcohol use as part of his religion, claims partial credit for curbing Kennedy's drinking.

Sen. Bob Bennett said he did not know Kennedy well, but said the senator had a "long and exciting career," spanning the Civil Rights era through health care. He said Kennedy seemed to have mellowed, personally and politically, as he got older, becoming more willing to cut deals on legislation and becoming less of a tabloid caricature after his second marriage.

"The Ted Kennedy you saw of the tabloids that was always drunk and always chasing girls and the Ted Kennedy that Mitt Romney almost beat because his image was so bad ... that Ted Kennedy disappeared and I think it was his wife that had that impact on him," Bennett said."The playboy was gone, the drunkard was gone. I think he died a content and much more put-together kind of man."

(Kennedy actually beat Romney by a large margin despite some missteps by the Democrat in that campaign).

When Kennedy's mother, Rose, died in 1995,Hatch attended the funeral uninvited. Kennedy, moved by the gesture, seated his friend in the front of the audience. Kennedy and his wife Vicki flew to Utah when Hatch's mother died and Hatch seated them next to his family.

When Kennedy's son Patrick had a major operation in 1988, Hatch sent him flowers. And a few years ago, the two came together for a fundraiser for the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation.

"Orrin was good enough to come," Kennedy said during the 2005 interview. Without skipping a beat, Kennedy then launched into singing a parody he and his wife, Vicki, wrote for the occasion:

"Where ever I go / I know Ted goes / Where ever I go / I know Orrin goes / No fits, no fights, no feuds, no egos / Amigos / Together."

tburr@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">tburr@sltrib.com

mcanham@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mcanham@sltrib.com

Brandon Loomis and Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.



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