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Kennedy’s ‘farm system’ now wields power

Alumni from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's "farm system" now hold power at the highest levels of government.
Image: People wait to sign a visitors book at Kennedy's office in DC
People wait in line to sign a visitors book in the office of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursdsay. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Behind each of Edward M. Kennedy's legislative victories was a vast coterie of staffers who became Washington legend. They meticulously packed the senator's black briefcase each evening with tabbed, underlined and dog-eared briefing papers. They helped him hone his floor arguments late into the night over dinner and wine at his home. They took turns walking Splash and Sunny, cleaning up the mess that Kennedy's Portuguese water dogs left on the manicured Capitol grounds.

Suite 317, tucked along a marble-floored and white-columned corridor of the Russell Senate Office Building, was not only the liberal lion's den. It also was the finishing school for generations of Kennedy's cubs, hundreds of zealous proteges who came to work for the Massachusetts Democrat. For decades, scores of smart and ambitious Democrats flocked to Kennedy for jobs, and his staff of dozens, which swelled in size as he attained seniority, became unrivaled and widely praised across Capitol Hill.

Kennedy's alumni now hold power at the highest levels of the Obama administration and across the political, legal, media and health communities. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer was a chief counsel, as was Melody C. Barnes, President Obama's top domestic policy adviser. White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg were his foreign policy advisers, and Kenneth Feinberg, the superlawyer tapped by Obama to become compensation czar, is a former chief of staff.

Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, worked as a volunteer on Kennedy's first Senate campaign.

'Unfailingly loyal'
"Teddy's staff was the farm system for the Democratic Party for a generation," Kerry said. "He was a magnet for brilliant, creative, progressive minds and hard-charging, hard-nosed operatives. But it was bigger than that. Teddy's staff had an unparalleled loyalty to him because he was so unfailingly loyal to them."

Some aides never left Kennedy's side, even turning down higher-paying jobs in the private sector. Barbara Souliotis, one of Kennedy's first hires on his 1962 campaign when she was just out of college, is still in his employ at his Boston office, having herself become a Massachusetts political icon of sorts and a revered model for running a senator's state office. Carey Parker, a Rhodes Scholar whom Kennedy recruited in 1969 after a Supreme Court clerkship, became the senator's alter ego, and he remains on payroll as legislative director.

Even in Kennedy's absence, as he struggled with terminal illness for more than a year, his advisers played a heavy hand in the cause their boss championed: health-care reform. The senator's office will remain staffed for 60 days following his death Tuesday. Is this the moment, finally, for other senators to snatch Kennedy's prized aides? Or will his staffers begin new careers in the private sector? Many are not yet openly pondering their future, at least before their boss is laid to rest beside his brothers at Arlington National Cemetery this weekend. But some of his most senior aides said they are committed to staying in public service.

"He would drive us very hard, but no harder than he drove himself, and he had this knack for knowing how to get things done, how to reach across the aisle, what buttons to push with which members to try to coax them along and to figure out how to make compromises on his legislation without compromising himself," said Michael Myers, a 22-year veteran of Kennedy's staff who now directs his health policy team. "A lot of people do want to carry on and try to do all we can to accomplish his big dream of health reform."

At Kennedy's office on Thursday, people streamed in to write condolences in the receptionist's log. About 20 new telephone lines were installed, while other senators loaned staffers to field incoming calls. A copy of the day's Boston Globe rested on a side table. The banner headline: "The extraordinary good that he did lives on."

In a sunlit corner, bouquets of white roses and pink lilies and yellow daffodils enveloped a mahogany table, the aroma wafting across Kennedy's blue-carpeted lobby, where framed pictures offered a documentary testament to the Kennedy family's political legacy.

Over the years, Kennedy needed such a large staff in part because he handled such a heavy flow of correspondence and walk-in visitors.

"He was not only the senator from Massachusetts, but he was the senator for the entire nation and the world," said Melody Miller, a top aide for four decades who retired in 2005. "People would not even know who their senator was, but they called us. They would write letters to their senator and send carbon copies to Senator Ted Kennedy."

Professional playground
An incubator of progressive policy — from health care and education to labor and foreign affairs — Kennedy's office was a professional playground for liberal minds.

"What attracted them? He got things done," said Jim Manley, a rare longtime staffer who left to work for another senator. Now the senior communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Manley added: "People come to Capitol Hill trying to effect change and you always knew that once you worked for Senator Kennedy, you were going to be in the midst of every major battle facing the country."

Kennedy focused on cultivating talent across a range of issues. He regularly recruited a military fellow who was in active duty to advise him. "That was the ethos: getting the most experienced people," said Mary Beth Cahill, a former chief of staff. "If you were going to get into a stem cell battle, it would be wonderful if there would be a person on the staff like David Bowen, who has a stem cell patent."

Ralph G. Neas, a longtime civil rights and health-care advocate, said Kennedy's staff was the best he had worked with in 45 years in Washington. "They started with brilliance, but brilliance in this town is never enough," Neas said. "They brought with their brilliance a work ethic that was also extraordinary, and they were always the most aggressive and competitive staff on Capitol Hill. They got the job done."

Many who left Kennedy's employ remained at his service — always. In 1994, when Kennedy faced his toughest reelection race, Kennedy alumni from across his decades in politics planted themselves in Massachusetts to help him win. "It was like the movie 'Field of Dreams,' " Kerry said. "If there was a fight, they would come. His staff wanted to give back to him, and they gave their blood, sweat and tears."

Upon learning that Kennedy had died this week, about 100 former staffers flocked to Boston to help orchestrate the funeral. "We are a family," Stephanie Cutter, a former communications adviser, said as she waited to pay her respects to her former boss at the Kennedy Library.

"There's not one of us who wouldn't drop everything we're doing to answer his call or help him, because we knew he'd do the same for us," Cutter said. "Very few jobs make you want to get out of bed in the morning, and when you worked for Senator Kennedy you didn't even need an alarm."

'Very demanding'
There was a certain mystique and fraternity surrounding Kennedy's office. Current and former staffers often gathered for parties in Hyannis Port and Washington. At Kennedy's annual Christmas party in the Dirksen Building, the senator came in costume. After the 2000 presidential recount, he dressed as the "Grinch that stole the election." Another year, he was an Austin Powers character.

"He was demanding, very demanding, but he was fun to be around," Cahill said.

And, reportedly, sometimes the senator augmented staff members' government salaries out of his own pocket to retain them. The senator would hand-write thank-you notes and ask about their families. On Sunday mornings, when Cutter would arrive at Kennedy's home to prep him for a television talk show, the senator would be in the kitchen cooking her breakfast.

Eager young Democrats dreamed of joining Kennedy's team. Tom Reynolds, a Democratic presidential campaign operative, was a finalist last year to be his communications director. The last step was an hour-long interview with Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, at their Kalorama home. "It was surreal," Reynolds said, "the three of us sitting on his patio drinking Fresca and shooting the breeze." Reynolds did not get the job, but he said he considers the interview one of the best experiences of his life.

Kennedy's staff was the envy of the 99 other senators, many of whom aspired to poach his aides, even though few ever did. Asked if she tried, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said: "Oh, my God. No, no, no. Number one, they wouldn't have left. Number two, he would have taken his fingers and made a sissy-shame sign. . . . When it came to recruiting, it was a one-way street."

To mark Kennedy's 75th birthday, hundreds of former staffers returned to Washington for a boisterous party in the ornate Russell Caucus Room around the corner from the senator's office. The alumni, including a Supreme Court justice, sang funny songs they wrote for Kennedy. One went:

Working for Teddy . . . our time was heady!

Our hearts adore you.

No matter what tomorrow brings, we'll be there for you.

Staff writers Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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