Bill Carrick, who once served as political director to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, recalls his former boss as a politician who “was obviously a master of big things – and so good at the small things, too”
One of California’s top campaign media consultants, Carrick worked in Kennedy’s failed bid for the presidency in 1980, then as his political eyes and ears in the Senate office from 1982-87.
He was awakened early Wednesday by a phone call from another ex-aide, informing him the 77-year old Kennedy had died, succumbing to the brain cancer he had fought for more than a year.
“No matter how much you anticipate this stuff,” he said, “it never hits you until it happens.”
Carrick’s first gig in big league politics was running South Carolina and Texas operations for Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Jimmy Carter, and he recalled how surprised he was upon meeting the Senator for the first time that year.
“The first thing I was struck by was how relaxed and easy he was to talk to,” Carrick said. “You grow up thinking of this iconic figure and then you meet him and think, ‘what a nice man.’”
When he went to work in the Senate office, “the workload was incredible,” he recalled, and no one worked harder than Kennedy.
“He had this big briefcase that everybody called ‘The Bag,’ he said. “And every night he would take home this huge pile of memos, draft bills, schedule requests, everything. And the next day, it would all come back with notes on it. I said, ‘wow, this is a different kind of deal.’
Carrick grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, where his parents were both Democratic activists. Senator Strom Thurmond lived there, too, and they would often run into him at the grocery store, where the ageless Republican would laugh and tell them,” ‘now don’t hurt me too much.’”
So in January 1983, when Kennedy grabbed him and told him to come along to a swearing-in reception being hosted by Thurmond, Carrick objected, saying that the arch-conservative Senator knew his family and that they had always opposed him politically.
“You’re my South Carolina man, you have to come with me,” Kennedy responded. “So what if you never voted for him – I never voted with him either.”
“Then he worked this whole room of South Carolinians, and Strom was, of course, incredibly flattered that “my friend Teddy” was there,” Carrick said.
While Kennedy was best known for big achievements – the Americans with Disabilities Act, his “the dream will never die” speech, his lifelong fight for health care legislation – his actions in more private matters showed his concern for people was not just a political pose, he said.
For example, when two colleagues, the late Senators John Sherman Cooper and Frank Church, were both suffering from long-term illnesses, “he’d drive out of his way into Georgetown and visit each of them once a week.”
“He had a special compassion for people who were sick or dealing with death,” Carrick added.
He got a first-hand taste of Kennedy’s personal touch in 2007, when a huge wildfire raged in Griffith Park, not far from Carrick’s Los Angeles home.
“I’m sitting there and the phone rings and he says, ‘I’m watching CNN – that’s a helluva’ fire – how close is it to you? I was getting worried.’”
As a political matter, the former Kennedy aide believes the Senator’s greatest strength was “his strong sense of the country” – a full understanding of the concerns and interests of colleagues from every state, forged by his personal background, his own presidential campaign and that of his assassinated brothers.
“He was always able to get everyone into the room and get them to talk together,” he said. “He had a real understanding of the country and I don’t think there’s a lot of that left.”
Another top political consultant we spoke to today — San Jose-bred Joe Trippi (who’s working with Jerry Brown on a possible campaign for governor) — also got his start in the big leagues working for Kennedy’s 1980 campaign and then at his Fund for a Democratic Majority. The last time Trippi saw Kennedy was in his Senate office last Spring where, as he was leaving after a long visit, he turned and told his mentor, “You changed my life.” Trippi said he’s forever grateful he got that chance.