Gregg remembers Kennedy as a gentleman

Republicans knew Sen. Edward Kennedy as a liberal and a political adversary, but one of Sen. Judd Gregg’s (R-N.H.) early impressions of the legendary Massachusetts Democrat was as a gentleman.

Gregg, who was in his first term, joined Kennedy as part of a delegation to attend Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Israel in 1995.

Upon arriving at the airport, the group of 30 House and Senate members realized they had a problem — not enough seats on the plane.

They appeared to be short one, but Kennedy, who was among the most senior members of the delegation, offered a solution: He would spend the trans-Atlantic flight on the floor of the plane.

Lawmakers protested the generous offer, but Kennedy would have nothing of it. He said it would be good for his sore back.

Gregg never forgot the gesture.

“He spent the entire flight lying on the floor,” said Gregg, who was elected to the Senate in 1992. “He said it was the most comfortable place for him. People kept offering him their seat but he said, ‘That’s all right.’ He was a very gracious guy. He was always thinking of other people.”

The two later served side by side as the senior Democrat and senior Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, swapping the gavel back and forth when Democrats captured and then lost control of the Senate.

Gregg said that Kennedy had a special way of letting the tension out of high-stakes legislative negotiations. In 2001, he and Kennedy spent three to five hours a day for months in Kennedy’s hideaway office on one of the Capitol’s top floors, hashing out the details of the No Child Left Behind Act education law.

Kennedy kept the talks from becoming overly intense by letting Splash, one of his Portuguese water dogs, into the meetings. (Kennedy was even known to have brought Splash along to the Oval Office during the Clinton administration.)

Somehow, the energetic and slightly misbehaved dog distracted the negotiators and lightened the mood in the room. The two senators ultimately reached an agreement that helped President George W. Bush sign the education bill into law — one of the biggest domestic achievements of his presidency.

“Splash was the distraction who kept the issues from getting too serious,” said Gregg. “It was a nice way of keeping the meeting relaxed.”