WASHINGTON—Caricatured and lionized, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is forever a paradox.
As a liberal icon, he's the favorite target of conservative Republicans. As a senator, he's the quintessential lawmaker, often crossing party lines to craft high-profile legislation.
Just this month, leading Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky introduced Kennedy at the University of Louisville as "one of the giants of American politics over the past half-century."
On Thursday, Kennedy launches a national publicity tour to promote a new book he's authored—a blistering critique of President Bush and the Republican congressional leadership that makes a case for an activist government to help solve national problems.
Once again, as he has many times in his 44-year career, Kennedy is trying to put a bit of a roar in his voiceless party. Yet by continuing to work with Republicans on issues that include immigration and health care, Kennedy is also openly rejecting the view held by many Democrats that they shouldn't help their opponents win legislative victories, especially now that they're stumbling. Kennedy prefers achievement.
"The national discussion and dialogue is negativity," he said in a 45-minute interview at his home on Wednesday. "If someone is going to do something right and take some political risk, we have to sort of deal with it. That is how the politics that I grew up with works."
Former aide Bill Carrick, now a Democratic consultant in California, said Kennedy is clearly trying to influence public policy in an election year.
"It's a time when there is a vacuum of positive Democratic initiatives," Carrick said. "Many people express the view that Democrats are content with opposing Republicans without providing alternatives. He's willing to put it on paper and codify it, if you will."
"America Back on Track," Kennedy's first book in 24 years, is part reflection and part national to-do list centered on seven challenges that he says now confront the United States.
Sprinkled throughout are tough denunciations of the Bush presidency.
"Under the Bush administration," he writes, "openness and accountability have been replaced by secrecy, evasion of responsibility, and even deceit."
The only other president mentioned as often as Bush is President Kennedy, and the references are often set up as stark contrasts.
He's especially critical of Bush for initiating the war against Iraq. He draws a distinction between a pre-emptive war to thwart an imminent attack and a preventive war against a potential threat.
"A notorious example was the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a preventive strike by Japan to block a planned military buildup by the United States in the Pacific," he writes.
The Bush administration, he adds, "wrongly used preventive war for a regime change in Iraq, and it did so essentially unilaterally."
By contrast, Kennedy writes, President Kennedy was under pressure to launch a first strike against Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. His brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, argued that such an attack would be "Pearl Harbor in reverse." "For 175 years," Robert Kennedy said, "we have not been that kind of country."
Selecting a stiff chair in his home's study to ease his chronic back pain, Kennedy, 74, said he was trying to practice the same "politics of hope" that his brothers embraced.
"My brothers were my heroes," he said.
In the book, he recalls how John Kennedy, just elected to Congress in 1946, gave him a tour of Washington landmarks—the White House, the Supreme Court, the Capitol.
"It's good you're interested in seeing these buildings, Teddy," the future president told his teenage brother. "But I hope you also take an interest in what goes on inside them."
The challenges that Kennedy foresees for the country include some of his long-standing liberal goals: guaranteed health care for every American, expanded civil rights and greater economic security, including increases in the minimum wage and more educational opportunities.
He said he initially had set out to write a book expanding on a series of speeches about Iraq. But he concluded that a "politics of fear" emerged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that has affected much more.
"It has really dominated the politics of our time and controlled the agenda of our time," he said.
While despairing of the country's current state, Kennedy paints a bright picture of the past—one that at times ignores political clashes, domestic disputes and international entanglements that have been prominent in the nation's history.
For instance, Kennedy complains that Bush has enacted a unilateral foreign policy that doesn't rely on allies to combat terrorism.
"We successfully contained the Soviet Union with the concerted support of our allies in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America," he writes about the Cold War. He doesn't mention that many of those allies were dictatorial regimes that Kennedy himself legislated against.
"There's no simple, easy answer," Kennedy said when challenged on that point. "President Kennedy, I always thought, said it right: `The challenge is making the world safe for diversity.' We can't have every country move toward democracy. But we did pretty well."
Kennedy, named one of the 10 best senators this week by Time magazine, maintains friendly relations with senators of both parties. First elected to the Senate in 1962, he's seen many historic figures come and go.
Even Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld—whose resignation Kennedy has demanded for nearly two years—maintains a cordial relationship with him that dates back to the days when Rumsfeld played tennis with Robert Kennedy.
"I've run into him a couple of times the last couple of years," Kennedy said. "He'll say, `Ted, you don't really believe what you're saying about Iraq, do you?' I'll say, `You're absolutely dead wrong.' But I found you can say that. It isn't a personal sort of thing."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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