Nation

Ted Kennedy’s first plum assignments, nailed down over drinks

A young Ted Kennedy appeared at a funeral in New Hampshire in 1961.
ASSOCIATED PRESS/File
A young Ted Kennedy appeared at a funeral in New Hampshire in 1961.

WASHINGTON — Senator Edward M. Kennedy always managed to get along with James O. Eastland of Mississippi, the arch-segregationist and Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee for his first 16 years in the Senate. But the first time they met, Kennedy paid an 80-proof price.

In oral history interviews released Wednesday, Kennedy talked about how he got subcommittee assignments early in 1963.

Eastland summoned Kennedy to his office at 10 a.m. He greeted the freshman by asking, “Bourbon or scotch?” After a brief delay, the visitor said “scotch” and the host poured him a glass. Kennedy asked for ice, then for soda.

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Eastland said he supposed his guest wanted to be on the immigration panel because “you’ve got a lot of Italians up there in Massachusetts.” Kennedy said he did indeed want that subcommittee. His host replied, “You drink that down, and you’re on the immigration committee.”

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Interviewed in 2005, Kennedy said: “I can’t believe that drink. It’ll curl your hair.” He drank it.

Eastland poured himself more bourbon and refilled Kennedy’s glass. The chairman said he supposed the visitor wanted the civil rights subcommittee because “You Kennedys always care about Negroes.” That was another panel Kennedy wanted, so when Eastland said, “You drink that thing,” he complied.

A third panel, on the Constitution, was offered on the same terms. Kennedy said in a 2007 interview: “Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, and that was the end. It’s quarter to 11, and I’m barely able to get up.”

He staggered back to his office, “smelling like a brewery.” It was full of people waiting to see him but now probably thinking, “He’s been down here two weeks and he’s stiff as a billy goat at 10 in the morning.”