Ken Feinberg, former chief of staff for Senator Ted Kennedy, worked for Kennedy from 1975-1980. Since being appointed Special Master of the U.S. Government's September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, he's now "Pay Czar" for the Obama administration. Feinberg joins us to remember Kennedy's presidential aspirations, legislative record, and personal approach to politics. (click through for full interview transcript)
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Good morning, Ken Feinberg. You know,
it was said earlier on the program by Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe that
the young people on the Hill who went through Teddy Kennedy's office were the
happiest on the Hill, the hardest-working, and thought that it was the best
staff in Washington, DC. Now, was it as happy a shop as they report?
KEN FEINBERG: Oh, I think it was a very very rewarding and
happy opportunity because you were working with a man who was a whirling
dervish, who wanted to take on and tackle as many issues as he could, and get
something done, have an impact, not simply be an elected official, sort of a
sabbatical. He really worked at it.
JOHN: You were on his staff during the 80s and his
FEINBERG: No, I was on his staff during the 70s, just
before he decided to run for president.
JOHN: Well, what was that like? You had these competing
tensions of the presidential run and also his criticism of Jimmy Carter and
also his legislative work.
FEINBERG: No, it was wonderful because if he was going
to run for president, he was going to run on a legislative record and that
meant that during the 1970s, when I worked there, we were working on multiple
issues, scores of issues, all at one time with a very very able group working
with him and it was just a very exciting time.
HOCKENBERRY: And what did you make of this moment back
in 1980 when he was asked famously by Roger Mudd his reasons for running for
FEINBERG: I don't make much of it one way or the other.
I think his overall legislative record towers above probably any other
senator in American history.
HOCKENBERRY: Not to be critical, but let me play that
moment, because I imagine your context for it is very different than the rest
of us. Here's Edward M. Kennedy answering a question from CBS reporter Roger
Mudd about his reasons for running for president back in 1980.
ROGER MUDD: Why do you want to run for president?
TED KENNEDY: Well ... I'm ... were I to make the announcement
and to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have the great belief
that this country has more natural resources than any in the world, has the
greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for
innovation in the world, and the greatest political system in the world.
HOCKENBERRY: Kenneth Feinberg, that played as ambivalence
in the public record. But what was it like being on Kennedy's staff at that
FEINBERG: There was no ambivalence. Everybody moved on.
You dust yourself off. There were issues on the Justice committee, Labor and
Human Resources Committee, Armed Services Committee... He just kept going to
implement the public policy agenda.
FEMI OKE: Kenneth Feinberg, former chief of staff for
Senator Kennedy. This is Femi Oke, just jumping into the conversation. When I
look at Senator Kennedy, I feel like I know him, like he's my big uncle. You
knew him personally. Was there a difference between his public persona and
his private persona?
FEINBERG: No. You saw a man determined to get something
done, to use his fame and his bully pulpit to try and to really have an
impact on the laws of the country. And he could be a hard task master, he
could be very demanding and want results. But working for him, you went home
at night knowing that you really helped accomplish something that would have
an impact on the country.
HOCKENBERRY: Do you remember a time when he called you
on the carpet?
FEINBERG: He called me on the carpet many times, but
always with a good humor [and a] constructive desire to get things done. Clearly,
everybody in Washington just loved the opportunity to receive an offer to
work for Senator Kennedy. Because you knew that working for him, you had the
chance to influence the public policy of the country.
OKE: Kenneth, there's lots of hand wringing now, people
saying I wish that Senator Kennedy was working on health care right now, his
ability to work across the aisle. What was the magic that he managed to spin?
FEINBERG: He realized, and he would realize it today
that the perfect was the enemy of the good. He knew that if you could get
half a loaf, or three quarters of a loaf, this time around to get the
foundation of the health care proposal that the other objectives would be
next year, or the year after. He knew that you secured success through
increments. That was his lasting legislative legacy. Stick around, do your
homework, get as much as you can, be willing to compromise, and in the long
run, you'll get what you want.
HOCKENBERRY: Lessons possibly lost on the newest breed
of senator who use maybe the bully pulpit more than this incremental one step
at a time approach that Kennedy is so famous for and forms the mountain of
his legislative legacy. Kenneth Feinberg thank you so much for being with us.
Former chief of staff for Edward Kennedy during the 1970s, ending in 1980,
during his failed run for the presidency, but setting up the legacy for
Edward M. Kennedy as an indefatigable compromiser and legislator.