'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Guests: Brian Williams, Mike Barnicle, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Bob Shrum, Ken Burns, Lawrence O'Donnell
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): At the White House, he never reached, but which he helped others to reach, under the Capitol dome, he dominated, at the American embassy in the country where his great grandparents were born, inside the home of the living links to Camelot, near where he will rest in the most solemn of this nation's remembrances of leaders taken from us, and throughout his beloved Boston, Edward Moore Kennedy is remembered. His singular career, assessed and calculated - and he, mourned in 100 million hearts and more.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: His extraordinary life on this Earth has come to an end. The extraordinary good that he did lives on.
JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To paraphrase Shakespeare, I don't think we shall ever see his like again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: With Brian Williams in Hyannis Port, where news breaks that Massachusetts may change its laws to enable the appointment of a successor. Mike Barnicle on his friend Teddy. Ken Burns on the last great speech in Denver, exactly one year before his death. Lawrence O'Donnell on the meaning of the "Lion of the Senate." Michael Beschloss on the man history should judge as the greatest of the Kennedys.
And Senator Bernie Sanders on how his passing will affect the Lion's final quest and how it will affect a new president's pledge, "I promised Teddy."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: This is the cause of my life. New hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American - north, south, east, west, young, old - will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The life and death of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
(BEGION VIDEO CLIP)
KENNEDY: For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: All that and more - now on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: The flags at the United States Capitol and the White House tonight flying at half staff as are the flags at every public building in this country, at every U.S. embassy, consular office, military facility, naval station and vessel, and around the world is a mark of respect for the memory of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died overnight at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, after a battle with brain cancer.
Good evening from New York.
To paraphrase William Butler Yeats as Senator Kennedy did himself when he eulogized his nephew John F. Kennedy Jr. 10 years ago, Ted Kennedy alone among the Kennedy men of his generation would live to comb gray hair, and we, as a nation, are better for it.
Our fifth story on the Countdown: Senator Kennedy's passing made no easier even with the foreknowledge it would be coming, nor the praise it inspired. The death of Senator Kennedy leaving a gaping hole in the political life of this country and an equally large void in a political dynasty.
That family issuing a statement reading in part, quote: "We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives. But the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it's hard to imagine any of them without him."
The ninth and final child of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy born on February 22nd, 1932, precisely on the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. His brother Jack having written to his parents from boarding school, asking to be the godfather and suggesting that they name the boy George Washington Kennedy. They granted Jack's first request, but they went instead with Edward Moore Kennedy for the name. Everyone - everyone would come to call him Teddy.
Thirty years later, Jack now in the White House, Teddy would win a special election to replace the senator appointed to fill the seat vacated by his brother. He held that seat for the nearly 47 years since.
One of his former colleagues today is grateful to have been given the chance to say good-bye.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: And even though we have known this day was coming for sometime now, we awaited it with no small amount of dread. Since Teddy's diagnosis last year, we've seen the courage with which he battled his illness. His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers, John and Robert, were taken from us: the blessing of time to say thank you and good-bye.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: A White House official tells "The Boston Globe" that President Obama will deliver a eulogy at Saturday's funeral in Boston.
Other Senate colleagues - both former and present - today remembering a dear friend of many decades.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: For decades to come, history will talk about his legislative accomplishments and the difference he made in public policy. For me, I lost my best friend in the Senate. He was a great friend. He was here many occasions right here on this river.
And - so, it's been a long year - a year and three months. So, I'm saddened by it deeply. It's like losing a brother. I lost my sister about a month ago and I feel this pain almost as much.
BIDEN: I sat with him on the Senate floor in the same aisle. I sat with him in the judiciary committee next - physically next to him. And I sat with him in the caucuses. And it was in that process, every day I was with him - and this is going to sound strange - but he restored my sense of idealism and my faith in the possibilities of what this country could do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Senator Kennedy will be buried Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery near his two older brothers, approximately 95 feet south of his brother Robert's grave.
Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS," joining us now from Hyannis Port, the home of the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod.
Brian, thanks for being with us tonight.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS: Keith, thank you for having me.
OLBERMANN: Through it all, through the president's assassination, through the senator's assassination, through the death of JFK Jr., there has been Ted Kennedy. For nearly five decades in the Senate, there has been Ted Kennedy. Is it hard to imagine getting through even this own process, Senator Kennedy's own death, without him to buck everybody up?
WILLIAMS: So many people today, here in this town, not being flip, said, in effect, who's going to give the eulogy? Who's going to be the glue?
You know, Keith, that the role of family leader wasn't always thus. It wasn't always that way. It grew. It happened. It happened organically. It happened with a little help.
I once had a member of the Kennedy family say to me, people think we have family meetings and councils, that there's structure, and it couldn't be more wrong. But that started to - that statement in the most recent years, as they kind of coalesced, the kind of agreement that Uncle Ted, as so many called him, was the guy, the patriarch - the word that's been tossed around so many times today.
So, yes, it is hard to imagine a crisis - a loss - without the crisis manager. Remember his role as they searched for the aircraft of John F. Kennedy Jr. not far from here.
OLBERMANN: The funeral arrangements are loosely set. He'll lie in repose at the Kennedy library. There will be the funeral mass in Boston. The burial will be late Saturday afternoon in Arlington near his brother's.
Is there a sense at this point of what these few days ahead are going to be like in terms of tone, in terms of reaction?
WILLIAMS: I am guessing that there are - there are touchstones, talismans that are represented by the various steps in this process. The church where he prayed for his daughter, Kara. The cemetery, as you mentioned, houses his two brothers. How perverse that a former president, a former senator, and now the third brother join them. How perverse that is for one family to bear that burden, considering the two men he joins in Arlington were victims of violent deaths from assassins' bullets.
So, yes, I think you'll see something represented at every step. And the common person, the common citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this is designed for them to come out, pay their respects, and be sad in public with other people who, if they didn't love Ted Kennedy, certainly knew his work and perhaps respected him during his day job.
OLBERMANN: With his letter last week, that was released last week to Governor Patrick of Massachusetts and the state lawmakers there about changing the possibility of an interim senator, an interim selection, an appointment to replace him before the special election in five months' time, there seem to be now reactions from "The Boston" and other newspapers in Massachusetts that Governor Patrick is attending to this and seems to have the support of the state legislature.
Do we know where that stands and is it sort of emblematic that even in his wake, in his absence after his death, Senator Kennedy seems to be affecting politics in his own state so significantly?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, forgive me. This is the hour for kids on bikes on summer vacation and it's going to happen. It's one of the things that makes Hyannis Port great, and at times noisy. But - I don't pretend to be an expert on the statehouse up here. I can hardly handle what's going on to the south in New York.
But, as it's been explained to me, a caretaker governor - the true meaning of both of those halves - taking care of the commonwealth for a period of about 120 days, someone with no designs on the office permanently, so that a special election may be held. And the letter, as you correctly pointed out to somebody last night, was written a while back. We just learned of it last week, a few days ago - kind of classic New England understated stoicism. I believe it's time the people of the commonwealth start talking about this publicly, how we move on, how to select my successor.
OLBERMANN: Brian Williams of "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" taking some time with us this evening - as always, my friend, great thanks.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
OLBERMANN: For more, let's turn to a friend of the senator, journalist and MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle, who is also in Hyannis Port tonight, at our NBC location, at MSNBC location there.
And, Mike, as you set up in front of the camera, how important was that place to him? How important was the sea it adjoins, and when did - do you know, when did he last get to sail?
MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: I think, Keith, he set out upon the ocean as recently as last week, the middle of last week. What they had done - what the family had done in the past two to three weeks, they had removed the boat, the MYA from Hyannis Port harbor, which is about 100 yards from here, less than 50 yards from the front porch of the Kennedy home, and they had taken it to a private Hyannis marina, which the paparazzi, the photographers could not witness Senator Kennedy being boarded upon the boat. He was in a wheelchair at that time, but my understanding is that he was out on the ocean right up until quite recently, this past weekend.
OLBERMANN: Opening day of the baseball season at Fenway Park, he threw out the first pitch standing next to our friend Terry Francona and the Red Sox paid tribute by observing a moment of silence before the National Anthem. The National Anthem was performed by an acapella group Hyannis Sound. I imagine he would have applauded both of these things.
BARNICLE: You know, Keith, I was down at the home earlier today to pay my respects to the family and Senator Kennedy's flag-draped coffin is in the sun room of his home, which overlooks the harbor and overlooks the MYA, his boat out there in the harbor, anchored in the harbor, and there are three pictures on a mantle above the casket. One is of Senator Kennedy with his wife, another of Senator Kennedy with his children, and the middle picture is Senator Kennedy on opening day at Fenway Park this past year with Jim Rice, who was put into the Hall of Fame in July, as you know, and Terry Francona the manager.
He had a life-long love of baseball. I can distinctly remember as a much younger man, Senator Kennedy with Senator Robert Kennedy taking his father, then the invalid stroke victim, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, to the first game of the 1967 World Series here at Fenway Park. It was a great match up, Keith. I'm sure you remember Bob Gibson versus Jim Lonborg.
OLBERMANN: And how fitting in that family, because, of course, it was his grandfather then the mayor of Boston, who threw out the first pitch, the first game in Fenway Park for the Red Sox in 1912. A little more practical but nonetheless cultural point, "The Globe" reported today that the compound that you're standing near, the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, might become a public museum, that the senator was interested in turning that into an historic property, similar to Hyde Park, FDR's home in New York.
Does that sound like something he would have wanted to you, something the family would support?
BARNICLE: Yes. Now, I think that's absolutely accurate. He had - he had long talked about having the home turned into a museum upon his passing. The home was a museum when he was alive and living in the home. And the idea of it becoming a museum, open and available to the public next to Nantucket sound, next to Hyannis Port harbor, next to the ocean he so loved, next right within the home that contained so many hopes and memories and dreams of both Senator Kennedy and his entire family, I think that's what he wanted and that's what's going to happen.
OLBERMANN: Mike Barnicle, MSNBC contributor, friend of the late Senator Kennedy - great thanks and our condolences on your loss.
BARNICLE: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The Kennedys were inevitably larger than life and even larger than death. Some still do not know that the day the president was killed, the famous authors Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis also died, and thus almost without notice. The day Robert Kennedy died, so too did Winston Churchill's only son, the writer Randolph Churchill. And hours after Teddy Kennedy passed away, so has the journalist Dominic Dunne, after his own long battle with cancer at the age of 83.
There are also tonight three comparatively obscure quotations - one about the senator, one by him, one second-hand from him that merit examination and analysis. The first, "I promised Teddy." The second, "I am not going to go to the Democratic convention and speak only three sentences." And the third, he also said, "Don't screw it up because he's watching."
OLBERMANN: "I promised Teddy," the president's vow to do health care reform this year. Does the senator's death stall the process or galvanize those on the fence? Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont - next.
Later, Ken Burns, Lawrence O'Donnell and Michael Beschloss, and behind the scenes at that epic speech in Denver, exactly one year ago last night.
OLBERMANN: Senator Ted Kennedy first devoted himself to reforming health care when he discovered Boston public housing residents had to spend five hours getting to and waiting for emergency room care. That was in 1966. Two of his three children battled cancer. One, his son, Edward Jr., lost a leg to it at the age of 12.
In our fourth story tonight: The future of what Kennedy called the cause of his life - health care reform. The health of all Americans - especially those in need - preoccupied this Kennedy even before he entered the Senate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KENNEDY: No problem that we have here in Massachusetts is more important than providing medical care for our senior citizens. I believe that it is essential that we provide a medical care program which is financed under Social Security.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Last month, his committee passed his bill for reform but Kennedy has been down this road before, lost the battle when the Clintons tried in '94, lost when he ran on it in 1980, lost a battle with President Nixon over it. Last year, he played kingmaker, anointing a new standard bearer for the cause, and so it is reported that when this president has been asked why he pushes health care so hard, he responds, "I promised Teddy."
We're joined tonight by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Great thanks for your time tonight, Senator, and our condolences on the loss of your colleague.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Meals on wheels, AIDS research, other medical research, cancer research, nutrition programs for pregnant women and children, expanded insurance for the unemployed, occupational safety regulations - that's just the first few items on the list of things brought to this nation by Senator Kennedy. It is so long. It is hard to imagine that there is an American living today whose body - literally body - is not in better shape than it would have been were it not for this man. Correct?
SANDERS: That is exactly right. I mean, among so many other things, pushing Medicare, pushing Medicaid, pushing children's health insurance. There are 18 million Americans today who have access to primary health care through community health centers. That program was developed by Senator Ted Kennedy.
OLBERMANN: Tell us about the bill the Kennedy committee passed and about his concept of health care reform and where it stands now in his absence.
SANDERS: Well, as you know and I think all of the viewers know Kennedy's passion was that every single American has health care as a right of citizenship. He understood that there was something lacking in our country today when we remained the only nation in the industrialized world that does not provide health care to all people, and yet we end up spending twice as much as any other country.
Where we are right now is Senator Kennedy's committee - which was led by Chris Dodd in his absence - has passed a pretty strong health care bill, which among other things has a strong public option, which would substantially increase the number of community health centers in America so that all Americans in fact would have access to a doctor, to dental care, to low cost prescription drugs, a greater emphasis, much greater emphasis on disease prevention and on quality care and, of course, access for all Americans. That was passed by the Senate Health Committee, but as you also know, the Senate Finance Committee seems to be going nowhere in a hurry.
My view - and I think many other people in the Senate think - enough is enough. Let's take the Senate Health Committee bill. If no Republicans are prepared to support it - and I certainly hope that some of them will have a change of heart with Senator Kennedy's death, then we go it alone. We have 60 votes within the Senate and we can defeat a Republican filibuster. We negotiate with the House and we finally pass health care reform that this country has been waiting for for decades.
OLBERMANN: To the point you just raised, Senator Kennedy wrote that incremental measures won't suffice anymore. Is there any chance that his passing will at least inspire wavering Democrats in the Senate and the so-called blue dogs in the House to stand fast for the kind of reform he was dedicated to?
SANDERS: Well, I certainly hope so. You know, with a Democratic president, with 60 votes in the Senate, and a strong vote in the House, it really is embarrassing if the Democrats can't pass strong health care reform.
What my view has been from the very beginning - if for whatever reason in the Senate, there are some senators who don't want to support a public option, don't want strong health care reform, that's fine. At least vote to stop the Republican filibusters which over and over again are holding up any kind of progress. And if they choose, the Democrats choose to vote some of them against final passage, that's fine. We will have 50 votes in any case to pass strong legislation.
OLBERMANN: I apologize if the last question seems at all indelicate, but Mr. Obama's reply, "I promised Teddy." Will the president be able to deliver on that promise or are we going to end up with some sort of obscene bill - even if it's named after Senator Kennedy - that just funnels more money to the insurance companies?
SANDERS: Well, I think we have - all of us - those of us in Congress and the American people have got to stand tall right now. We need strong grassroots effort. We need to put steel into the backs of many members of Congress to have the guts to stand up to the insurance companies, the drug companies, the people who make billions off of health care, and finally say - finally say - to every person in this country is going to receive quality health care and we can, in the process, save billions of billions of dollars. We can do it if we have the courage, and now is the time.
OLBERMANN: And now there is unintentionally inspiration. The independent senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, great thanks as ever, sir.
SANDERS: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: An extraordinary irony. His last great speech at the Democratic convention August 25, 2008, his death August 25, 2009. The extraordinary back story of that speech from Bob Shrum and Ken Burns.
And there are more Kennedys in government and in public service, but this was the last of the men who dominated Washington for 62 years. The Kennedys in history and Ted in the history of the Kennedys.
OLBERMANN: The rumors swirled around Denver like a Rocky Mountain snow squall. A year ago yesterday, Senator Kennedy had ignored all advice and entreaty, and headed west, because when Barack Obama was nominated for the presidency he was going to be there, damn it.
And upon landing, he had been forced to the hospital. The stories were everywhere. He was unconscious. He was in an oxygen tent. He was near death. The nomination would be overshadowed by the death of the very definition of the word "Democrat." Not quite. He proved he had a full year yet to live, in fact, exactly a full year.
As to what ailed him, as his friend, his former press secretary, and his long-time speechwriter, Bob Shrum, told MSNBC in a segment not included in Chris Matthews' upcoming special due to time constraints, it was bad but not bad enough to even seriously slow the senator down.
BOB SHRUM, FMR. KENNEDY PRESS SECRETARY: We got to Denver and he suddenly had to go to the hospital and it had nothing to do with his cancer. It was that he had a kidney stone of all things. As he said, a kidney stone! You know, when it was all over. And he was in great pain in the hospital and at 5:00 he said, I'm going to go give this speech.
And Larry Horowitz who was his chief of staff back when I used to work for him as press secretary and when I worked on the staff, and also, a doctor was there, and he called me in the middle of the afternoon and said, "Can we cut the speech in half?" Well, there were three versions actually. There was the original version. There was one that was a little more than half the length of the original version and there was one that was like three sentences.
And he said in the car on the way to the convention, "I am not going to the Democratic convention and speaking three sentences, period." And so, I cut it in half, and I called someone and said, "Load this version into the prompter." And the person said to me, "Well, has he seen and approved this?" I said he can't see and approve anything right now. Just put it in the prompter.
KENNEDY: There is a new wave of change all around us, and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination. Not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation. And this November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama, and for you, and for me, our country will be committed to his cause.
The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.
SHRUM: I cried when he came out on the stage in Denver, because I had known, having been involved with that whole process, what he had been through over the last few hours. And I was sitting in the family box. And when he came out I stood up and I didn't realize it. I just started crying, because it was an absolutely extraordinary moment.
E. KENNEDY: Thank you. Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Bob Shrum, from whom you will hear much more at the top of the hour, when MSNBC premieres Chris Matthews and "The Kennedy Brothers," a "Hardball" documentary.
If August 25th, 2009 was a night of great sadness, August 25th, 2008 was one of extraordinary joy. The man who made the film introducing Senator Kennedy at that Democratic convention, Ken Burns joins us.
And they all belong to history now. Where will history place them?
OLBERMANN: It is the dream of anyone who gets to introduce greatness that they will do a great job, and then the person they introduce will completely top them. Our third story on the Countdown, so it was for documentarian Ken Burns, who will join us in a moment, chosen to compile the film that would introduce Senator Kennedy at the Democratic Convention a year ago last night, if the senator made it.
As you heard Bob Shrum say in the tape before the commercial, it was not mortality, but a kidney stone that threatened the senator in Denver. Not 24 hours after rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated, the senator made it, gave not just a speech, but a great speech, and ultimately his last great speech.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
E. KENNEDY: And this is the cause of my life: new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American, north, south, east, west, young, old, will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right, and not a privilege.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The will he make it or not mix of dread and hope that preceded that address came in the context of the work to come, a tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
E. KENNEDY: The sea for me has always been a metaphor of life. the sea a constantly evolving, shifting, changing aspect of both nature and of life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Joining me now, the man who made that film, Ken Burns.
Ken, good evening.
KEN BURNS, DOCUMENTARIAN: Hi, Keith. Not great circumstances.
OLBERMANN: No. I appreciate you taking the time tonight. That film, your tribute before the senator's last great speech, tell us something about the experience of making it.
BURNS: You know, I've had since he gave that speech a message on my cell phone thanking me, after all that he went through that night. And I couldn't bear to listen to it today. I just am terrified of hearing it.
It's been a pretty tough day.
He was amazing. He was gregarious, generous, disciplined, driven, the whole time we were making it. He knew what he wanted to say, what he wanted to do.
I've been in touch with him over 20 years. And he was amazing, putting that film together in such a short time, under the circumstances that he faced.
You know, I could only sort of hang on to Shakespeare today. And I found some "Henry V," and he would I think have appreciated it. He said "a good leg will fall straight back, will stoop. A black beard will turn white. A curled pate will grow bald. A fair face will wither. A full eye will wax hollow. But a good heart is the sun and the moon, or rather the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps its course truly."
This is a man who loved the sea, who kept his course truly. And he's still there. It was amazing to work with him, Keith.
OLBERMANN: And, clearly, throughout his voyages and the many different voyages, he had a perfect sense of what was left to be done, where yet he had to steer. Did he have an equal clear awareness of what was behind him, of what he had accomplished?
BURNS: You know, he had this incredible modesty with all of this. I'm sure he knew what he had done. He didn't brag about it. He was always looking forward. It was always the battle up ahead.
But, you know, when they write the history of the United States Senate, it will be him and Daniel Webster. And Daniel Webster will be honored to be in his company.
OLBERMANN: The Kennedy memoir, "True Compass," fittingly, will be published next month. You saw him through the lens of a biographer. Something that might surprise us about how Senator Kennedy viewed his own life that you know and we don't?
BURNS: You know, I think it's been said all day today about family, about faith. People loved him. They called him Teddy. People who weren't even family members called him Uncle Teddy. They loved him. I loved him.
You know, when I went to start talking to him about the film, he wanted to talk about the Red Sox. Mike is absolutely right, one of the joys of his life. I think it was his sense of realness, of authenticity in him, to sing a song, to recite a bit of poetry, to tear up, maybe, to remember a graduation or a birthday, to be generous with all around him.
It's what we've been talking about all day, but we cannot understate how incredibly important a contribution. And then when you look at his public life, all that he has accomplished, it is a huge, huge void. It is night on Marchant Avenue tonight in Hyannisport, Massachusetts.
OLBERMANN: In your video tribute last year, Victoria Kennedy said he's the pied piper of our family. But obviously he was to so many in this country. Was it - you mentioned family. Was it family? Was it his second wife that had so much to do with him being able to reinvigorate, seemingly, in the middle of his career, and just jump right back into the forefront in the '80s?
BURNS: Yes, Vicki is a huge force. She is wonderful. She's driven. She's determined. And as every sailor knows, sometimes the wind dies down and then it comes back again. And she gave him that wind in his sail and gave him that extra oomph.
It's been a year since that film premiered. And he's there because of her will. She lifted him up in so many, many ways. She is a force of nature herself. She gave me this -
OLBERMANN: I was going to ask you. Tell me about the bracelet.
BURNS: She gave me this bracelet when we were working on the film a little over a year ago, Ted Strong. We've seen others, different colors, different things. I haven't taken it off. You know? The whole year, I've worn it every single day, as has, you know, John Kerry and his friend Chris Dodd. It means a lot.
And this morning, I woke up and I looked down at this thing. And I can't take it off. You know, the dream shall never die. And that was Vicki's doing. She knew we could all lift him up with our love and our prayers and our good wishes, as I'm sure every American feels right now, just this sense of palpable loss for this extraordinary human being.
OLBERMANN: Don't take it off. It's a privilege. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced the video tribute to Senator Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year. As always, my friend, great thanks for joining us.
BURNS: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The Senate has lost its lion. Has it also now lost its last bridge between the parties? And Joe Kennedy Sr. sought to steer greatness first to Joe Jr., then Jack, then Bobby. Destiny had other plans. Michael Beschloss on the greatest Kennedy of them all. You're watching Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: On November 6th, 1962, in a special election to succeed Ben Smith, appointed to temporarily fill John Kennedy's Massachusetts seat, Ted Kennedy was elected to the United States Senate. At the time, the current president was 15 months old. His predecessor was 16 years and four months old. His predecessor was 16 years and two months old. Senators Bennett, Gillibrand and Pryor were not yet born.
More than 186 million of the 307 million of us have never known a United States Senate without Ted Kennedy in it. Our number two story on the Countdown, men like these are not replaced, they are succeeded. They are not remembered, they are honored with statues. They scarcely still fit within the constraints of human description.
Thus was the late Ted Kennedy the lion of the Senate. Only two men served that body longer than he. He was presiding over the Senate when he learned Jack had died. He was flying to accept his nomination for his first full Senate term when his plane crashed, and he was pulled to safety by another senator.
He was the youngest senator elected whip, and lost that post after he left Mary Jo Kopechne to drowned off Chappaquiddick. Through it all, he was a diligent senator, the only candidate, Senate Majority Mike Mansfield said in 1968, who was and is a real Senate man.
Kennedy collaborated on all fronts, with all his enemies from other conflicts, who all honored him today. "An extraordinary leader," said Mr. Gregg. "One of the giants of American political life," said Mr. McConnell.
Let's bring in a veteran of the Senate himself, MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell, who served as chief of staff for the Finance Committee. Thanks for your time tonight, sir.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to be here, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Your reflections on the senator tonight. Why is, in fact, he being called the lion of the Senate?
O'DONNELL: Well, that's longevity, of course. And it's also respect and it's wisdom. But I'll tell you my angle on it, Keith, is that he could never be tamed. That's one of the things I loved about him. Especially when the conventional wisdom was overwhelmingly going in one direction, for example on the vote to authorize the war in Iraq. For Ted Kennedy to stand there, and make up his own mind and cast his own vote against the prevailing winds, those were the moments where the Kennedy staff had every right in the world to be very, very proud of who they worked for.
OLBERMANN: Mr. Hatch, the Republican, said, quote, "when I first came to the Senate, I was filled with conservative fire in my belly and an itch to take on any and everyone who stood in my way, including Ted Kennedy." They ended up as friends, co-sponsors. Mr. Hatch has a painting, a portrait of Senator Kennedy in his office.
What are we making of this strange phenomenon that Republicans, at least until Hillary Clinton ran, raised such a large percentage of all their money off Kennedy back home, but loved the man on the Senate floor?
O'DONNELL: Well, the problem was he was absolutely irresistible one-on-one. I had a lot of those moments myself, where he would just be alone in my office. He'd drop by to talk about different things. I had a moment alone with him on the Senate floor a couple days after my daughter was born, and of course he knew that. And that's all he wanted to talk about. He was one of those guys of his era who didn't really get interested in child birth until the grandchildren came along. So he was going through for me every single detail of the - of Teddy Jr.'s child being born and how things went at the hospital, and then said, you know, when it was my turn back then, they didn't care where I was. I was off having a drink, waiting to be ordered into the hospital to see the baby once everything was over.
And so it's that incredible, personal charm up close, that individual attention. That's something Orrin Hatch couldn't resist. That's something none of us could resist.
OLBERMANN: His ability to connect with those people. With him gone, is it gone from the Senate? Was he the last of that breed?
O'DONNELL: It's not gone from the Senate. Chris Dodd learns - learned everything he knows about being a senator from his best friend, Ted Kennedy. He will probably take over Ted's chairmanship. There are others who have it, who know how to do it. There are younger members of the Senate who haven't been tested on this yet, people like Olympia Snowe, for example, who 20 years from now may be a great leaders of compromise in the Senate.
The model is there to be done. Ted Kennedy didn't invent it. He used it well. And people who have worked with him know how to do it.
OLBERMANN: The "Washington Post" report, lastly, that last year when he returned to the Senate from his hospital bed and defended Medicare reimbursements for doctors, several Republicans, quote, were so moved that they switched their vote. Could he do something like that in absentia now with health care reform?
O'DONNELL: It is a very different situation with very different dynamics. The man to watch here is Orrin Hatch, once again. He has - so far refused to negotiate with Senator Kennedy this year on health care. He's a member of the Kennedy committee, and he had absolutely no participation in the bill at all.
He is also a member of the Senate Finance Committee, where he's refused to participate in the possible compromises there. Let's see in September, when Senator Hatch comes back, if he develops a different posture. If he does, he can bring other Republicans with him. I would say he's the first one to watch, in terms of will his heart lead him in a different direction after Ted Kennedy's funeral?
OLBERMANN: We can hope. Our own Lawrence O'Donnell, great thanks for joining us.
O'DONNELL: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Assessing the influence and historical impact of all three of the Kennedy brothers, and whether or not Teddy was, indeed, the greatest of them all, with Michael Beschloss next on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: It was never intended for Edward Moore Kennedy to be his family's patriarch, nor its champion in American politics. That job was meant for the eldest brother, Joe, and then the eldest brother, Jack, and then the eldest brother, Bobby.
As the only Kennedy brother given length of years, Ted Kennedy accepted his role as Camelot's protector. But in our number one story, more importantly, he left behind a legacy as a law maker, advocate, foot soldier for the less fortunate, a legacy that equalled his brothers, if not surpassed it.
Although he aspired to the presidency, as his brothers had, he did not succeed in winning it. Ultimately, he did not need to. His life's work was there in the Senate, where championed social causes, principally, creating programs that gave nutritional support for low income women and children, sponsored the Americans With Disabilities Act, had major roles in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, helped usher in Title 9, which allowed women to play sports in college and school.
But arguably his most important work came early in his career. Through the Immigration and Nationality Act, Senator Kennedy helped to end racial and even nation by nation quotas that had limited immigration to this country. While it might be difficult for some to separate Ted Kennedy from his brothers, the legislation that he created and supported, the laws that now impact ordinary Americans, are uniquely his.
Joining us now from Hyannisport, NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Michael, good evening.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Hi, Keith.
OLBERMANN: There's no way, whether you're a liberal or conservative, that you can deny the impact that the Kennedy legislation has had on this country. Will history show that it was Ted Kennedy of the bunch of them who was the brother who changed America the most?
BESCHLOSS: I think they will and, you know, Ted Kennedy would be the first one to say that he had an unfair advantage over his brothers. John Kennedy had two years and ten months as president. Bobby Kennedy had only about three and a half years in the Senate.
But that having been said, it was Ted Kennedy who, after he realized that he was not going to be president, decided to become really serious in the Senate, and spend ultimately 47 years doing a lot to change this country. If Jack Kennedy had lost in 1960, and decided he wasn't going to be president, I doubt if he would have stayed in the Senate. I think the same would have been true of Bobby Kennedy. That's the difference between those brothers and Ted Kennedy.
OLBERMANN: His career was not always destined for the greatness that we see now in the immediacy of the rear view mirror. It's extraordinary to think about this. The "New York Times" editorial, "Little Brother Wins" September 19, 1962. "This initial victory for Edward Kennedy is demeaning to the dignity of the Senate and the Democratic process."
Is it important, as we go through this weekend ahead, with the memorial service, with the funeral, with the burial, that that be carried along with every encomium to Ted Kennedy, to indicate just how rough a path head to carve?
BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. He, in retrospect, said that too. Here I was, he would say, 1962. I was 30 years old. I had barely held a job. And suddenly, I'm vaulted into the Senate, mainly because my brother is the president. And so the Times was not that far off.
But looking back, what did he use the opportunity for? He didn't just sort of stay in the Senate and decide, I like the job, you know; I like the perks and so on. He decided to become really serious, learn the job, and become, as we've heard all day, one of the great senators in American history.
OLBERMANN: He was - and he would say this, I am proud to be a liberal. He was unabashed about this. But Jack Kennedy ran for president from a centrist point of view. Bobby Kennedy went from the anti-communist right, from McCarthy's band, to the anti-war left. Can it be said that Ted Kennedy was the most consistent of the Kennedys in his politics?
BESCHLOSS: No question. He once said I define liberalism in this country, and he really did for a whole half century. In a way, he was not only a liberal in the Senate, but the scourge of Democratic presidents who strayed from what he saw as, you know, the essence of the Democratic party. That's why he ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980. And Bill Clinton - you know, he liked Bill Clinton as a person, but privately was very critical of Clinton trying to go to the center and triangulate.
To some extent, the reason why Ted Kennedy supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton last year was because he was skeptical of what Bill Clinton would try to do ideologically.
OLBERMANN: Last night when we were on the air together in the immediate aftermath of the news that he had passed, I suggested that his legacy might be endurance and perpetual position of being in a comeback. Was that true, do you think, of Senator Kennedy ultimately?
BESCHLOSS: I think it was true. This was a guy whose life was not, in any way, easy, especially after 1968. He did not go through a day in which he could be entirely certain that he would not meet the same fate as his brothers did. You know, all sorts of other problems within that family. This was not a plaster saint. But looking at the story over all, you look at the way that an individual conquers these demons and look at the way Ted Kennedy did that.
OLBERMANN: Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian, with the last word for us, and great thanks for it and your time tonight, sir.
BESCHLOSS: A pleasure, Keith. Be well.
OLBERMANN: One final note which may summarize how Senator Edward Moore Kennedy Sr. did what he did and left the wake that he has left. It may come across as self-aggrandizing. If it does, I'm sorry. I'm actually just a bit player in this anecdote.
My last contact with the senator came the day before the inauguration. At a luncheon, his son Ted Jr. introduced himself and said his father had hoped to be with him for the specific purpose of telling me this. But that he was husbanding his faculties for the big day that was to follow. And he decided to stay in.
"My father wanted you to know," he told me, "that he was always a viewer, but since he's been at home so much, you've become his newscast." So he said, "tell Keith to keep up the good work." It was a compliment and a lovely one.
Then came the instruction, wrapped in humor. He also said, "don't screw it up, because he's watching." A lesson one hopes for those who succeed him in this fight for reform and in all things. Good night and good luck.
Here now, Chris Matthews and the premiere of his special "The Kennedy Brothers" a "Hardball" documentary.
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