Ten Best: Kennedy/Byrd moments

by Brian Clarey

June 2, 2008

Last week the two most senior members of the US Senate, Sens. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), faced individual health crises. Kennedy, who eventually won the Senate seat vacated by his brother John in 1962, underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham. Byrd, who was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1952 and took a Senate seat in 1958, was hospitalized in the Washington DC area after experiencing lethargy and a high fever. Between them they have served their country for more than 100 years, though it hasnlt always been pretty.

Chappaquiddick (Kennedy)

Let’s get this one right out of the way, shall we? In 1969, a young Teddy Kennedy took an even younger staffer from his brother Bobby’s 1968 presidential campaign for a drive to the Vineyard – Martha’s, of course – and on the way he drove off the Dike Bridge and into the water. Kennedy swam to safety while the woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, died in the car, which was upside-down and under water. Kennedy called the cops the next day, after the car and body were found. He pled guilty to leaving the scene and was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended.

Race relations (Byrd)

Sen. Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1942, when he was 24 years old, eventually ascending to the title of Exalted Cyclops. By the time he ran for Congress in 1952 he had disassociated himself from the organization and has apologized for it numerous times since. But… Byrd was part of the infamous 1964 filibuster staged by Southern Democrats to stall that year’s Civil Rights Act. And he is the only senator to have voted against the nominations of both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas – the only men of color ever to be nominated for the US Supreme Court. But… Byrd carries a 100-percent rating from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People because he aligned with them on all 33 bills they endorsed in the 108th Congress. And he has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

Harvard days (Kennedy)

With an accent like that, there was really no other college for Kennedy than Harvard, where he entered in 1950 as a freshman. But young Teddy was not exactly college material – he was expelled in 1951 for paying a friend to take a Spanish exam in his stead. So he pulled a couple years in the Army – another long story – and was readmitted in 1954. He redeemed himself somewhat in November 1955, when he caught the sole touchdown pass in the Yale Bowl that year, though the Crimson still lost 21-7.

Angel… of death? (Byrd)

In 1951, Byrd witnessed the executions of Fred Painter and Harry Burdette, convicted of kicking a soft-drink salesman to death in Charleston, WV. It was the first time West Virginia would use the electric chair to carry out its death sentences, and the last execution Byrd would ever watch. “It’s not a beautiful thing,” he said. He did invoke the punishment as appropriate for former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in July 2007 over that whole dog-fighting thing. Man loves dogs.

Kennedy as cockroach (Kennedy)

In 1964, Kennedy survived a plane crash that killed the pilot and his aide. It was just a year after his brother John was assassinated in Dallas, four years before his brother Robert was murdered and 35 years before his nephew, John Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash near the Massachusetts coast. His eldest brother, Joe, also died in a plane crash. More on that in a minute. He suffered a broken back and a punctured lung, but still managed to hold his office.

The King of Pork (Byrd)

Robert Byrd is known as the “King of Pork” for the enormous amounts of cash he has diverted to his mountainous state since taking office in the 1950s. Some examples: the Robert C. Byrd Expressway; the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, Robert C. Byrd Drive, the Robert C. Byrd Bridge, the Robert C. Byrd Federal Correctional Institution, the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing, the Robert C. Byrd federal buildings (both of them), Robert C. Byrd Industrial Park, the Robert C. Byrd Institute of the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building and the Robert C. Byrd statue in the US Capitol Building. You’ve got to love this guy.

Blue-collar blueblood (Kennedy)

You can say what you want about Teddy Kennedy – though it’s pretty much all been said before – but the guy hasn’t exactly been sitting on his ass since he took office. He’s been the Senate majority whip; chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee; is currently chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and still serves on the Judiciary Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

Shoulda been in pictures (Byrd)

Byrd was involved in the creation of C-Span, that cable network that manages to be completely vital and totally unwatchable at the same time. He had a cameo in the feature film Gods and Generals, and once played the fiddle on “Hee Haw.”

Man of constant sorrow (Kennedy)

Kennedy has suffered enormous personal hardships: His sister Rose had a fontal lobotomy. His oldest brother, Joe, was killed in a plane crash and… well you know what happened to John, Robert and John Jr. His son Edward lost his leg to bone cancer. He’s been divorced, though has since remarried, and has battled alcoholism.