opinion | Martin F. Nolan

Obama’s Kennedy

Five years ago, the president lost his only real friend in Congress

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama confers with Senator Ted Kennedy in January 2008.
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama confers with Senator Ted Kennedy in January 2008.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It was a sad day for Massachusetts, for the Democratic Party, for civility in Washington, D.C., and, most of all, a sad day for Barack Obama and his administration.

Ted Kennedy, who died on Aug. 25 five years ago, was the last politician Obama respected or admired. The president may utter niceties about Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, but little evidence suggests that he heeds their advice. Nor has he much time for members of Congress from either party.

In 2009, from the pulpit of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Mission Hill, Obama eulogized Kennedy as “a colleague, a mentor, and, above all, a friend.” Since then, Obama maintains many admirers and loyalists, but friends as peers, comrades, especially in Congress, where friends matter? The rambunctious rookie senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, probably has more.


How to explain a friendless leader? Cynicism, an occupational disease along the Potomac, cites Harry Truman, who allegedly said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” (The Truman Library does not verify this remark.)

David McCullough’s meticulous biography, “Truman,“ details the day Vice President Truman received the news that Franklin Roosevelt was dead. Truman was among friends, mixing a drink in Speaker Sam Rayburn’s “Board of Education” room, where they met over bourbon and branch water “to strike a blow for liberty.”

As Kennedy said dozens of times over his 47 years in the Senate, “The only way to get anything big done here is on a bipartisan basis.” Today’s Republican Party may make that impossible, but congressional Democrats often have friends on the other side. It’s a start.

As a 30-year-old senator, Kennedy discovered that Senate friendships can begin with some humble pie and often a side order of whiskey. He learned the arts of courtesy and compromise before politics became more mechanized and more monetized.

The young Kennedy’s Senate career unfolded in a era of one-term presidencies, when five consecutive presidents did not complete two terms. Since then, voters have reelected Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. All became unpopular during their sixth year in the White House. The Beltway culture swoons over campaign consultants who can deliver the magical 270 electoral votes. But these hired guns often abandon their hero, choosing lobbying over governing.


When he endorsed Obama in January of 2008, Kennedy said he chose a candidate “who inspires me, inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes.” Kennedy, who enjoyed speechifying himself, would not have hesitated to tell the president that oratory is not enough.

Had Kennedy lived, he would have insisted that being a salesman, party leader, and morale officer are all part of the president’s job description. “But you can have fun doing it. Go to Wall Street!” he might counsel. “They trash you every day there while the stock market keeps going higher. Mimic Stephen Colbert! Say, ‘I accept your apology.’ ”

Kennedy treated Republicans with respect, even sympathy. Gee, your job is tough, he might have said to John Boehner, then make the speaker smile by comparing Tea Party dissidents to “a dog who chases a car, then catches the car!” One can almost hear the senator’s roaring laughter.

The lion of Massachusetts was famously bipartisan, but also partisan and honored for it. “Ted Kennedy never moved away from party rivalry. He was a fierce partisan to the end,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in his eulogy. “But over the years he reminded the world of the great potential of this institution, and even came to embody it . . . How many times did we spot him coming through a doorway or onto an elevator, his hair white as the surf, and think: ‘Here comes history itself?’ ” McConnell’s first reaction to Kennedy’s death was, like that of most senators, genuine and heartfelt: “He was fun to be around.”


McConnell and Obama have a mutual friend, who has too many buddies, mates, pals, and chums to count. His name is Joe Biden.

Biden would be happy as Obama’s life coach. So you don’t like politicians? No problem. Just talk, but mostly listen. They might think you’re faking, but they do it, too. It’s worth a try.

Martin F. Nolan is a former Washington bureau chief for the Globe.