The legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) haunted me even before his death.
The senator rarely visited the Senate since his diagnosis with brain cancer last year.
But I felt his presence, and more importantly, his absence, during my daily journeys around the U.S. Capitol.
The most-senior of senators are awarded what are called “hideaway” offices in the Capitol. Each senator is assigned a personal office in one of the three Senate office buildings. But depending on your seniority, senators also score some sweet digs not far from the Senate floor.
The hideaways are not a satellite office with space for staff. They’re a sanctum for senators. A retreat to study. Read. Think. Write. Meet guests. Return calls. Catch a catnap. Or just relax. Maybe with Scotch or a glass of wine.
Senators can decorate the hideaways any way they want. They stock the bookshelves with very personal volumes. The artwork and mementos adorning the walls are often a tribute to that senator’s political legacy. There are framed copies of bills they authored signed into law. Pictures of family and presidents. Bats from baseball sluggers. Autographed footballs. Musical instruments. They’re repositories for the icons that define these men and women of the world’s most exclusive club.
The locations of the hideaways aren’t advertised. There’s no sign on the non-descript doors. Just a room number. And unless you spy a senator coming or going, chances are, you’ll never know who toils behind these otherwise innocuous-looking passageways.
And without question, Ted Kennedy boasted one of the grandest hideaways in the entire Capitol.
I often point out that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has a hideaway not far from Kennedy’s on the third floor of the Capitol. Boxer’s hideaway is nice. A lot better than the bandbox hideaways freshmen senators are relegated to in the basement. But Boxer’s quarters is barely a third the size of Kennedy’s and windowless. Then again, voters only sent Boxer to Washington in 1992. Meantime, Kennedy was first elected in 1962.
And his hideaway shows it.
Kennedy’s chancel is gigantic with a postcard view of the National Mall, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. The view is staggering. And it’s filled with political memorabilia worthy of a museum.
From above the transom of the double-door entrance, you can see the suite’s green walls from the corridor. An Irish roadside sign protrudes from near a fireplace. A nod to Kennedy’s Irish heritage, it reads “Lough Gur” from County Limerick. Pictures of Kennedy grandfather Honey Fitz and JFK also adorn the space. And there are photos of California First Lady Maria Shriver.
I pass Kennedy’s hideaway almost every time I walked from the House side of the Capitol to the Senate or vice versa. Before he fell ill, I might spot Kennedy emerging from the hideaway on his way to a vote or to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). The Massachusetts Democrat might pop out, hunched over as he walked, after a hideaway luncheon with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). Ideological opposites, the two shared their Catholic faith. And the duo teamed up as committee chairmen to approve No Child Left Behind earlier this decade.
But when Kennedy got sick, the doors to his hideaway shuttered. The lights were dimmed above the transom. I’d pass by those doors each day. And each day that they were sealed shut served as a reminder that Senator Kennedy was gravely ill. And he had abandoned his special cloister.
The average person strolling by had no idea what was behind those doors. But to me, Kennedy’s conspicuous absence spoke volumes.
This was particularly apparent after the Senate granted Kennedy a new hideaway on the second floor of the Capitol earlier this year. It was an effort to make him more comfortable when the senator did report to the Capitol.
Everyone on Capitol Hill knew Kennedy’s condition. I wondered aloud one day what they would do with that space if the senator passed away. Someone speculated they might convert it into a shrine to the Kennedy legacy.
Not long ago, I walked back to the House from the Senate and stopped for a few moments outside those hideaway doors. I pondered Kennedy, his condition and the current health care debate raging in Congress. I thought about his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) who just returned to the House after a stint in rehab. I thought of the death of Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The doors to the hideaway were locked tight. Along with all of the history and mystery inside.
Kennedy’s legacy will flourish for years in the Senate. He’s one of the most important 10 or 15 figures in the history of the institution. But those locked hideaway doors were symbolic of a Senate career that was long ago complete. A testament to the end of the senator’s legislative fights and parliamentary battles. And even though Kennedy was still alive at the time, the doors signaled that the Senate chapter of his life was long closed.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.