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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bob WebbOne of my most poignant memories of Senator Edward Kennedy was not his unforgettable 1972 Halloween night campaign speech in Jersey City attacking President Nixon. Nor was it the tip he gave me for a good story when I was The Cincinnati Enquirer's Washington correspondent.

It was the day, around 1973, when I took two men from Northern Ireland, one Catholic, the other Protestant, to see him. At the time, Kennedy's administrative assistant and I were good friends. So I asked him if he could arrange for the two Irishmen to meet Kennedy. He said he would try. What he found was that the senator's schedule was so full he could offer only a quick handshake at the entrance to his office. At the appointed time, we were at his door. Kennedy met and shook hands with them.

But that wasn't all. They'd so captured him in that brief moment, apparently, Kennedy invited us into his office where he first took us around the room showing us pictures of his family. Then he settled into the chair behind his desk and listened intently as his Irish visitors told him how they had become friends and learned to work together for reconciliation in their country at a time it was a war zone. Kennedy obviously was deeply moved. He'd given us not just a quick minute at his door but 10 or more in his office.

Later, the senator and I ran into each other in the lobby of the National Press Building. There, I was surprised when he gave me a tip on a good story and recommended I follow up with a staffer on the Senate committee or subcommittee on health. The tip was that a doctor at the University of Cincinnati medical school was administering whole-body radiation to patients with terminal cancer in hopes of saving them. Ethical, and doubtless legal, issues were involved. There was a question whether the patients knew what they were getting. Kennedy was keen to find out.

Health issues were a consistent interest of his. As far back as the Clinton presidency he was trying to limit insurance exclusions for pre-existing conditions, a key element in President Obama's health-reform effort. With his huge prestige as one of history's three longest-serving and most effective senators, Kennedy was perhaps Obama's best hope for getting a suitable reform bill through Congress. Whatever happens to the reform effort, Kennedy may be remembered most for what he tried to do for the health of all Americans while his own deteriorated.

But I'll also remember him from those 10 or so minutes in his office with two Irishmen trying to heal the wounds of their own country.

Bob Webb was the Washington Bureau Chief for the Cincinnati Enquirer, 1970-75, and news editor, 1975-76. He was a senior editorial writer and twice-weekly columnist for the paper, 1976-93.