Does George love Ted?

Posted: Jan 21, 2002 12:00 AM
There has been great fuss in the last few days over broken hearts in Washington. To uncoil the story from tabloid compression, what we have is (1) President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy in joint embrace when the education bill was passed. (2) Mr. Bush saying very pleasant things about Mr. Kennedy a few days later when giving a speech. And (3) Teddy in a speech to the National Press Club, blasting W.'s tax-cut bill and calling for its (effective) repeal. Causing the world to wonder: Do we have here an act of gross infidelity? How can two people appear so close and, days later, divide so sharply?

The question was raised by one commentator in the context of the whole question of the alleged incongruity of extra-ideological friendships. A few years ago, much attention was paid to the friendship of Sen. Orrin Hatch with the same Senator Kennedy. After heated Senate hearings, Orrin was spending his time comforting justice-designate Clarence Thomas. During the day, Senator Kennedy was ranting against Thomas' confirmation. In between, so to speak at cocktail hour, Kennedy and Hatch were best friends, singing each other's delights to a press confounded by the heterodox friendship.

I have run into the question myself. I have never before spoken of it, but can't think why not, 30 years after the event.

It was Feb. 22, 1972, in Switzerland, where my wife and I dwell during that month, pursuing ski slopes and book deadlines. The call came in from longtime friend Professor John Kenneth Galbraith in adjacent Gstaad. Would we like it if Senator Kennedy came to us for a drink later in the day? By all means. And did he ever come. He brought with him his wife, his sister, his buddy Sen. John Tunney from California, Senator Tunney's wife, and a Spaniard who was a member of the court.

That was 7 p.m. At 9 p.m., they were still there. Something had to be done about food. I called a local restaurant with modest accommodations and asked if they could squeeze in a party of nine people. They agreed, and off we went for cheese fondue.

After we ate, I asked if they would like to join us in a postprandial bout at the painting studio on our bottom floor. Indeed they would. Every one of them was given a paintbrush and an easel. I went to fetch a bottle of champagne and, easel and paintbrushes clutched in the other hand, reached to put the bottle on the pingpong table we used for our canvases. I managed to affix dabs of mercury red, cerulean blue, yellow amber, raw umber and ivory white onto the rear end of Jean Kennedy Smith, future ambassador to Ireland. She had been leaning over her canvas, and now the seat of her ski pants looked like an early Seurat, a study in pointillism.

But nothing could disturb the jollity of the evening. My wife supplied a spare set of pants and dammed our river of hospitality only when Teddy asked if he could borrow a car to take the gang home. She said no; there was a bridge between us and Gstaad.

They left sometime after midnight, and we learned from J.K. Galbraith a long time later that this was Teddy's 40th birthday. Once every decade after our bacchanalia we crossed paths, and the greeting was convivial, though come to think of it, the last time around, his handshake was a study in curtness. I must have done something right in my column that morning.

Sen. Barry Goldwater several times acclaimed Teddy as a conscientious and informed senator, and the two were friendly, if not friends. The year we entertained Teddy, I otherwise devoted to blasting presidential candidate George McGovern, who in later years I frequently debated, and learned that his ideological toughness cohabited with a warmth and personal generosity that greatly exceeded his political skills.

There isn't any reason why President Bush has to renounce a friendship with Ted Kennedy, just so long as he makes it clear to the American public that Mr. Kennedy is an utter ass when prescribing policy and a distillery of meanness when he goes after a target as with Robert Bork.

There are those who frown on friendship across the aisle as if it were the subversion of a Manichaean divide -- how can you be nice to Lucifer? Well, Lucifer has his winning ways, which is of course why one must always beware of him. We angels have to keep our eyes on things. Semper paratus. Amen.