Senators reflect on what made Ted Kennedy special

Senators look back at Ted Kennedy’s legacy 11:23

They come from different parties and different ends of the country, but four senators - two current and two former - all agree that the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy was one of the most talented legislators ever to grace the floor of the Senate.

On the even of the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, "Face the Nation" brought together four longtime colleagues - Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and former Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Olympia Snowe, R-Me. - to talk about what made Kennedy such a unique figure in American politics.

"He dedicated his life to the institution, and thereby being able to become one of the most effective members of the United State Senate. And I might add, probably the greatest antagonist I ever had on the floor of the Senate," said McCain. "He enjoyed the combat, but he didn't personalize the combat, and that is really one of the reasons why I think so many, on both sides of the aisle had not just respect, but after a while affection."

Snowe, who also occupied the opposite side of the aisle, called Kennedy "a legislator's legislator."

"He used his consummate skills as negotiator. He appreciated the norms and traditions of the Senate and also got to know his colleagues-- their preferences and their dislikes, and understood, you know, your adversary today would be your ally tomorrow," she said.

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In particular, she recalled a time when she and Kennedy co-authored a bill on genetic non-discrimination. Although the bill came through a committee that Kennedy chaired, and it would have been customary to put his name first on the legislation, he put Snowe's name first. She said she could hardly imagine "such a magnanimous gesture" in today's Senate.

Kennedy's ability to spread around credit caught Mikulski's attention, too.

"He was more than willing to let other people take the credit even though he was the big guy in the room. A very savvy and strategic legislator and he also made things fun. And he made you feel welcome, and he made you feel like you mattered, and you counted," she said.

Dodd, who was one of Kennedy's closest friends, recalled him once saying that the Senate "changes a person" and he worked every day make sure he could create victories with the people he disagreed with.

He recalled a dinner Kennedy would have at the start of each Congress, where he invited senators to talk about what they would like to achieve during that Congress.

"I know the leadership used to try to send the meanest junk yard dog they could to be the ranking Republican to him - because he was just too productive - to slow him down," Dodd said. It's awfully difficult to say no to a guy who turns to you and says, 'Tell me what you'd like to do, and let me help you do it.'"

Another key to his talent for working across the aisle was to ensure that partisanship never became personal, McCain said.

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"Some of the most ferocious debates I've ever had-- and will ever have-- were with Ted Kennedy," he said. "We got mad at each other ... but then when you walk off the floor with him, all that goes away because they were legitimate beliefs that each of us had and the passion, I think, is not only appropriate but admirable."

Despite the increasingly partisan nature of today's Senate, the group said there could still be lawmakers in Kennedy's mold.

"If Teddy were here today, he'd make this work," Dodd said. "I have great confidence in the place and the institution. It goes through ups and downs. It's never perfect, in a sense. ... It'll work again."

McCain said some of the newer and younger members of the Senate have some of the qualities that Kennedy did, even if they may never have the same background, experience and family that he brought to the institution.

"I miss the desire to get things done for the people of this country and I do agree that there will be others that are equally, as far as service is concerned, but frankly for those us knew him, we may never see his like quite like that again," he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.