Senator John Kerry, the new senior senator from Massachusetts, stood with his eyes closed, his right hand on Ted Kennedy’s flag-draped casket. Thirty seconds went by and, head bowed, Kerry crossed himself and stepped back. His hand reached toward the casket one last time for a final friendly pat.
“As far as I’m concerned we still have a senior senator and we have to celebrate his life,” Kerry says a few minutes later, backstage at the John F. Kennedy presidential library, where his friend and mentor is lying in repose. Dozens of Kennedy relatives mill around and Kerry greets them all. “What’s changed is Teddy’s lying in there. There’s a moment here where the mission gets larger. And I’ve got to step up and we’re going to have to do our best to meet the challenge.”
The first task will be the cause of Kennedy’s life: health-care reform. Kerry has been watching the coverage following Kennedy’s death, and he worries about progressives using Kennedy’s passing as an excuse to dig in their heels on the inclusion of a public option, a key point of contention. Senate Republicans have said they will not vote for a bill with one in it, arguing that the creation of a public plan to compete with private insurers is the first step to socialized medicine; House progressives have said they will not vote for legislation without such an option to ensure affordability.
“Teddy was in favor of a public plan and Teddy would’ve fought for a public plan on the floor of the Senate,” Kerry bristles. “Teddy would’ve probably found a way to have a vote, and if he’d lost the vote, he’d have moved on. That’s how you legislate. You don’t block. You don’t stop anybody from expressing their point of view. You’ve got to move on and then you live with the vote, I mean, that’s what Teddy would do. And if there were absolutely no way of getting it done, Teddy would find a road. If it meant changing it or working it through, he’d do that.”
Kennedy’s legacy, Kerry says, is one of reaching across the aisle, of not making the perfect the enemy of the good, as Kennedy liked to say. “I learned that really early on when I first got to Washington and Teddy would invite me over to the house and I would go to dinner and there’d be [Utah Republican Senator] Orrin Hatch and [Virginia Republican Senator] John Warner, [Alaska Republican Senator] Ted Stevens and a couple of other guys,” Kerry says. “And so hopefully people will go back to Washington with a renewed sense of focus of how we can get done what we need to get done and take the lesson of reaching across the aisle and bipartisanship that Ted brought with him.”
Kerry says that Kennedy, though physically absent the last seven months, was actually very involved in health care policy, whether through his staff, other senators or his wife Vicki. “He sat down with his staff and Vicki and others and he said, ‘Okay, we’re going to get so-and-so to do this and we’re going to work with [Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara] Mikulski on higher education to do that,’ and sort of divvied it up. He talked to [Connecticut Democratic Senator] Chris Dodd. He laid it out, he weighed in,” Kerry says. “If Teddy was in treatment or doing something, Vicki would relay to me what we needed to get done and we’d do it.”
The last time Kerry spoke to Kennedy was a little less than two weeks ago. Kerry had just had hip replacement surgery he is still using a cane during his recovery and Kennedy called to check on him. “And I said, what the hell are you doing calling me when you have so many other things to think about It was typical of Teddy,” Kerry says. Kerry last saw Kennedy a few weeks ago, when the two sat on the Kennedy compound porch in Hyannis Port. “You know, he couldn’t put all things together at that point you’d finish some sentences for him in some ways,” Kerry recalls, shifting his cane to stretch his right leg out. “But you knew what he was getting at. He was very tuned in to the boats that were sailing, that were racing in the bay. He was just very much there. He had the total ability to be Ted Kennedy and think and know what’s going on; it was just getting hard for him to verbalize.” The two talked about sailing and the sea. And health care: “He’d say, ‘We just gotta get it done,'” Kerry says.
Kerry will push for whatever health care reform bill is passed to be named for Kennedy. “I think he would be very honored and very gratified if the bill were named after him,” he says.
Of course, Kerry is now the head of the Massachusetts delegation, which is currently scrambling to fill the gaping hole left by Kennedy. “And all of us in our delegation, and a number of us have talked about it, I mean we’ve got to make sure that there’s not a gap here,” Kerry says, referring to the effort to change the current state law, which doesn’t allow an interim appointment until the seat is filled with a special election early next year. But don’t ask Kerry who will fill Kennedy’s seat. “There’ll be a spirited, classic Massachusetts donnybrook, and I will happily not get into the middle of it,” he says with a laugh. Will he endorse anyone “It’s not my instinct right now. I’ve got a lot of friends who are thinking of running.”
Kerry feels now that Kennedy will always be looking over his shoulder. “Teddy took this very seriously, even though he had so much fun and made people feel that he didn’t always take it that seriously,” Kerry says. “He set a real example for phone calls and contacts and follow-ups and that’s what you need to do.”
At this point Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, passes by and Kerry hip be damned pops up with a grimace. He hugs her and, teary eyed, she says, “I just want to make him proud.” Kerry nods. He too knows well the feeling of having big shoes to fill.
See TIME’s complete Ted Kennedy coverage.