Kennedy Historians Debunk "Greatest Regret" Myth

 Greg Sargent reports that Kennedy historians don't buy the claim that Ted Kennedy's "greatest regret" was refusing to make enough concessions in negotiations with Richard Nixon to achieve a universal health care deal in the 1970s:

But the notion that Kennedy "regretted" his failure to cut a deal with Nixon is largely bogus, according to Adam Clymer, a former Times reporter and the author of "Edwards M. Kennedy: A Biography." Rather, Clymer says, Kennedy’s regret was that the differences between both parties were unbridgeable, making agreement impossible and losing a historic opportunity — not that his side had failed to give up enough to get that agreement.

"Kennedy was sorry that they didn’t reach an agreement" and that both sides "never reached closure," Clymer told our reporter, Amanda Erickson. He dismissed the idea that Kennedy regretted not giving up enough: "That’s not the same thing at all."

Clymer also disputed the relentless focus on Kennedy’s willingness to sacrifice. "He was always anxious to reach an agreement," Clymer said, "but that didn’t mean any agreement."

Dr. Janet Heininger, who interviewed Kennedy extensively for the Kennedy Oral History Project, said the two historical moments — each with different proposals and public moods — are not remotely comparable. She said the parallel is too tortured to conclude much of anything, let alone that the lesson is to "compromise with Republicans now."

"I don’t think that’s what he would have wanted us to take from it," she concluded.

In recent days, the "greatest regret" claim has been used to encourage progressives to give up on the public option. Steven Pearlstein was the first to deploy it, but many others have followed suit, including Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, Joe Klein of Time, J. Lester Federer of Newsweek, Fox and Orrin Hatch, and George Stephanopoulos on ABC.

As I wrote yesterday, in June 2003 Kennedy did unequivocally say that in retrospect, he'd have grabbed a deal with Nixon on health care. He didn't call it his "greatest regret," but he did use it to make the case for compromising with the Bush administration on achieving a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

Kennedy did manage to reach a compromise with Bush, but within five months, Bush had stabbed Kennedy in the back, reneging on the deal that they had negotiated. Suddenly, the prescription drug bill looked nothing like what Kennedy had agreed on; instead of expanding the reach of Medicare, it was a giveaway to the health industry, opening up Medicare to private insurers. As a result, Kennedy became one of its most outspoken critics.

Saying GOP broke word, Kennedy vows new tactics

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff  |  November 27, 2003

WASHINGTON -- When the Senate voted last summer to provide Medicare patients with prescription drug coverage, a fiery Senator Edward M. Kennedy hailed the bill as "the greatest action in a generation to mend the broken promise of Medicare."

Now, it is Kennedy complaining about broken promises, after Republican leaders took the bill Kennedy painstakingly negotiated and morphed it into an industry-friendly "Medicare reform" package that opens the 38-year-old entitlement program to competition with private insurers. The senator, who had spent months cajoling Democrats to back his version of the legislation, was back on the floor this week with equal passion, pleading with his colleagues to stop the measure he charged had been "hijacked" by Republicans.


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