Biographies & Memoirs


Drinks with the Senator


I arrived in Washington to begin my Senate career on November 7, 1962, the day after being elected. Given that I was technically filling out the last two years of Jack's unexpired term, the appointed Benjamin Smith having stepped aside, we did not wait until the new Congress began on January 3, 1963--although I was sworn in on that date too, along with the other incoming senators, including Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, with whom I still serve. The press was enormously interested in this event. I was nearly blocked by them from coming over to the Capitol from my hotel on Massachusetts Avenue. Lyndon Johnson performed the ceremony in the Senate gallery as Joan and my sisters and parents looked on from the seats.

As proud as I was of this personal milestone, I was also proud of what the 1962 midterm elections affirmed for my party and my brothers. President Kennedy and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, had just averted nuclear war with Russia. The Soviet atomic missiles secretly installed on Cuban soil earlier that year would not, as the world had feared little more than a week earlier, be unloosed upon American cities. The most dangerous thirteen days in history had ended: thirteen days of a superpower standoff in which millions gathered silently to watch the news in fear.

Those thirteen days ended with a peaceful agreement on October 28. Some credit could be claimed by the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, but most of it was due to my brothers: to their intertwined judgment, their moral and psychological acuity, and their resistance to the panicdriven pressuring of generals and cabinet members to strike, lest we be struck. Instead, the Kennedy administration ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and secretly promised to satisfy some Soviet demands. It worked.

The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis brought exhilaration and a wave of renewed support for the New Frontier. On November 6, voters had turned out in record numbers. The morning headlines announced "a remarkable success" for the Democrats, as Tom Wicker in the New York Times put it: a gain of four seats in the Senate, minimal losses in the House, and gubernatorial victories highlighted by Edmund G. "Pat" Brown's surprise victory in California over Richard Nixon. It was all the more remarkable given that a new president's party nearly always suffers reversals at midterm.

The voters understood that devastating warfare had been averted by temperate statecraft. Dad had been right in his consoling remark to Jack after the Bay of Pigs, when he'd said that this was going to be one of the best things that ever happened to him.

I had followed the crisis from a distance. I learned of it along with millions of others on my car radio on Monday night, October 22. I'd been campaigning outside Boston, debating with Lodge at a service club, I believe, and was driving home when I heard Jack's voice informing the nation of a "secret, swift, and extraordinary buildup of communist missiles" on Fidel Castro's island and announcing a "strict quarantine" of military equipment being shipped to Cuba. The deadly game was then actually at its midpoint, but Jack's address marked its disclosure to the world.

After detailing the rest of his seven steps in response, the president shifted directions and spoke to "the captive people of Cuba" themselves. (A special radio hookup was beaming the broadcast into homes on the island.) "I speak to you as a friend, as one who knows of your deep attachment to your fatherland," Jack told them, and voiced sympathy that their revolution had been betrayed by Castro, whom he did not name. The United States, he assured Cubans, had "no wish to cause you to suffer or to impose any system upon you."

As Jack spoke, I was driving along Stonington Street in North Andover. I veered into a parking space outside a coffee shop, ran inside, and dialed the White House from a pay telephone in hopes of getting through to my brother. I reached a National Security Council member who told me, reasonably, that President Kennedy was unable to talk just now. This person did assure me that the crisis was as grave as the president had said it was, and I continued home to Joan with my mind churning. I reached Jack the next morning. He told me the outcome was still far from certain, and that he could not discuss any details over the phone. I understood.

I'd prepared a statement of my own on Cuba, but Jack's advisers asked me not to deliver it. With less than two weeks until the election, I figuratively paced the sidelines as my brothers and Nikita Khrushchev played out the fate of the world.

I still chuckle when I recall that even my mother was more involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis than I--although not in a way that Jack especially appreciated.

At the height of the standoff, when nuclear warfare remained a live option on both sides, the head of the KGB in Moscow burst through the door of Khrushchev's office. He carried a letter to the Soviet premier from one Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy of Hyannis Port and Palm Beach. Mrs. Kennedy wanted the premier to autograph some of his books and send them to her.

The transatlantic cables hummed with this baffling new development. When Jack found out about it, he called up our mother and demanded, "What in the world are you doing?!" Rose assumed that Jack knew very well what she was doing. Each Christmas, Mother made it a practice to give her children books signed by heads of state. This year, it was Mr. Khrushchev's turn, and she had methodically forged ahead according to her schedule.

"The Russians won't assume this is innocent!" Jack sputtered. "They'll give it some interpretation! Now I have to get my CIA people speculating on what that interpretation might be! The strengths! The weaknesses! The contingencies!"

The kicker is that, after the threat of World War III had been defused, Khrushchev did send Mother the autographed books.

As I began to feel my way in the Senate, I was helped by Jack's counsel. One useful piece of advice was about committees: "Take whatever they assign you; don't depend on me for a recommendation. If I get into it and you don't get the committee, that'll reflect on me." I said that was fine.

Jack also suggested that I attend the prayer breakfasts. "That's the inner sanctum of the Senate," he said, "and you ought to go on down there." And so I did, every Wednesday morning. There were about twelve or fifteen regulars--Republicans and Democrats both, but a force unto themselves. When a measure came up for a vote, unless it was an especially partisan bill, these men would generally vote together. Jack was right: they were a power clique, one of the many that I soon discovered.

The prayer breakfasts were fascinating, and Jack always wanted me to regale him with who was there and what got said. A new member got carefully scrutinized at them. The first or second time I showed up, the scrutinizer was none less than Richard Russell Jr., the powerful senator from Georgia. His statue now stands in front of the Senate office building named after him.

Senator Russell asked me to say the blessing. All eyes turned to me. Being a Catholic, I was not exactly steeped in biblical verse. I thought fast, and gave the Catholic grace before meals. It's a pretty short grace, and when I finished it the other breakfast attendees were still looking at me expectantly. I darted my eyes at them, and then said the after-meal grace. More silence. I repeated the two graces, then resolutely sat down. They seemed satisfied. Jack roared at that story.

He roared even louder the next week when I repeated a yarn about Pharaoh's daughter as spun out by Senator Willis Robertson of Virginia--the father of the TV evangelist Pat Robertson. It more or less went this way:

"Now, the Pharaoh's daughter, she was out one morning in Egypt, just walking along the river, and she looked down in those bulrushes. And in those bulrushes she saw this little baby in a kind of a little cradle, a little boat. So she leaned down there and pulled that baby out of those bulrushes. She walked back to the Pharaoh, and she said, 'Pharaoh, I've got this baby. I found him down in the bulrushes.'

"Of course, that's what she said. That's how she said she got that baby. You and I know where that baby came from that she said she found in the bulrushes."

Not long after that, I walked into a Senate debate and listened to Senator Robertson speak very ardently in favor of a certain bill--the content of it eludes me now. The time for the roll call came. Impressed with the Virginia senator's passion, I cast an "aye" vote when my turn came. When the call got to Robertson, he voted "no."

I couldn't believe my ears. I went up to him afterward and said, "Senator, I just listened to your speech on this issue, and you spoke strongly in favor of it. Then you voted 'no.' I'm confused." Robertson smiled at me. "Well, Senator," he said, "in my state, the people are evenly divided on this bill. To those who favor it, I send my speech. To those who are opposed, I send my vote."

"Thank you very much," I said to him. As I walked away, I added to myself, "I think I might be able to make it here after all."

As for the committee assignments, I knew who it was I needed to go to. Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but this does not begin to express this man's influence on Capitol Hill. He'd served continuously in the Senate for nineteen years by then (after a brief stint in 1941), and would continue until his resignation in 1978 as the body's senior member. Power flowed through him and a handful of other senators, mostly southern, such as Richard Russell of Georgia, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Eastland's fellow Mississippian John Stennis. These senators were bright men, masters of procedure, and--perhaps with the exception of Thurmond--shapers of valuable legislation, in such areas as defense, agriculture, and the refurbishing of the navy. They were also segregationists to a man, although in some cases they moderated their views with the changing times.

The remarkable thing about Eastland--one of many remarkable things--was that he held his power despite being rather detached from the full life of the Senate. If you were to visit his office during the day, more often than not you would find his desk covered with oil maps. There would be oilmen in there, from Mississippi and the Gulf areas, and they'd all be bent over these maps absorbed in oil deals that they were working out. These oil meetings would go on for the better part of the week. Everything that happened on that committee, in fact, happened after 5 p.m. That's when Eastland would invite his people in for a drink. Everett Dirksen of Illinois would come in and drink with him, and Richard Russell, and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania. John McClellan of Arkansas would stop in, but he didn't drink.

These men had little use for other committee members--people such as Charles "Mac" Mathias of Maryland, or Phil Hart of Michigan, whom I've always thought of as the conscience of the Senate at that time. It was Eastland and his reliable Old Bulls, conservatives from both parties. They knew they had the votes, and so they worked on what interested them the most: deciding which judges would get appointments and which wouldn't. They controlled Judiciary as a sort of fiefdom.

Eastland's racial views posed a moral problem for me. Civil rights became one of the defining causes of my career. How could I seek guidance, or cooperate in any way, with a proponent of segregation?

My decision regarding Eastland--in fact, my abiding impulse to reach across lines of division during my career--took strength from the concluding phrase of Lincoln's first inaugural address, on the eve of the Civil War. I decided to put faith in "the better angels of our nature." I worked with James Eastland; in fact, the two of us became friends. Then and always, I would work with anyone whose philosophies differed from mine as long as the issue at hand promoted the welfare of the people, and I would continue to await those better angels, and to remain confident in ultimate justice.

When I called on Senator James O. Eastland in his office to seek committee assignments, he rose and greeted me cordially: a tall, moon-faced man with a penetrating squint behind his dark-rimmed glasses and a resolute set to his mouth. I told him the reason for my visit, and he said, "Well, you take the weekend and figure out which committees you want to go on." I said that would be fine, and excused myself to consult with my staff.

My "staff," by the way, consisted of one administrative assistant and one legislative assistant. That's a telling figure, one of many, as one reflects on how the U.S. Senate has changed over the past half century. These days, most senators have staffs of at least fifty, including legislative directors, staff assistants, researchers, and press secretaries. I spent the weekend talking to trusted intimates, mostly Jack, about my committee preferences. We narrowed my interests to constitutional rights, civil rights, criminal law, immigration and refugees, antitrust, and perhaps one or two others. None of these seemed especially likely. The following Tuesday, the phone in my office rang, and my education in the ways of the Senate reached another colorful plateau.

"Chairman Eastland wants to see you now," the voice on the other end said.

"Now?" I replied. There seemed to be no ambiguity. I hurried over to his office.

This time, the senator's greeting was, "Do you drink bourbon or scotch?" I had not prepared myself for that particular query, but I blurted, "Scotch." Eastland summoned an aide, who brought in a tray of ice. He then placed a bottle of scotch on the table for me, and a bottle of bourbon for himself. The aide put ice in my glass, then poured scotch over the ice, and added some water. Not enough water, I thought.

"Now, I think I know what you want," said Eastland as he leaned back and swirled his drink. "Let me see if I'm right. You've got a lot of Eye-talians up there in Boston, don't you?"

Before I could answer, he went on, "You've got a lot of Eye-talians. Now, the Kennedys are always talking about immigration and always talking about Eye-talians and this kind of thing. You drink that drink there, and you're on the immigration committee."

I managed something like, "Oh, gee, that sounds great," and raised my glass. Even before I sipped, I could tell that it had the power to curl my hair. I noticed that Eastland had gotten up from his desk and crossed the office to fiddle with something. I quickly poured half my drink into some potted plants near his desk and swallowed the remainder.

Eastland returned, eyed my glass suspiciously, dropped some more ice in it, and said, "Now you have to decide that second committee." He sat down and reflected a moment. Then he filled my glass with scotch again and said, "You Kennedys always care about the Negras. Always hear about you caring about those. You finish that off, and you're on the civil rights subcommittee."

"I am?" I said. The glass in my hand looked more like a vase. But I had to give the senator credit: without even consulting me, he was two for two on my preferences. Before I could take another belt, Eastland had crossed the room again. In retrospect, he was perhaps giving me the chance to fudge my intake a little. Once again, I poured some into the potted plants and downed what was left as Eastland returned.

"Now I s'pose we have to fix you up with a third committee," he drawled. "Not a lot of people want a third committee, but I think you're always caring about the, you know, Cons'tution. Kennedys always talk about the Cons'tution. You finish that, and I'll put you on the Cons'tution subcommittee."

This was amazing. I hadn't dared hope for this level of accommodation from the senator. I began to settle into our conversation. When I checked my wristwatch sometime later, I saw that I'd been inside Eastland's office for an hour and fifty minutes. It was just coming up on noon. Both the plants and I were well lubricated.

I thanked the senator for his help, lurched out of my chair, and made it back toward my office. I found about forty people from Massachusetts outside, waiting to greet their new senator, who was weaving a bit and reeking of alcohol. The people were looking at me strangely.

"I was just, ah, getting my committee assignments," I told them.

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