Campus & Community

Remarks of Stephen Breyer

6 min read

Harvard University

(As prepared for delivery)

It’s a special honor to be here today; and I’m very grateful to President Faust for the invitation to participate in this extraordinary occasion. I speak today not as a judge or a professor, but as a former member of the Kennedy staff. And I’d like to tell you a few of the lessons the senator taught me.

In 1979-80 Sen. Kennedy was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I was his chief counsel. From the start he wanted cooperation among Democrats and Republicans. When disagreements arose, he’d tell us just what to do. “Work it out,” he’d say. “It’s always possible.”

He had Ken Feinberg, his former office chief of staff and a member of his judiciary staff, join me for breakfast every morning with Emory Sneeden, Sen. Thurmond’s chief minority counsel. We’d drink our coffee and plan the day together with an eye toward minimizing partisan disagreements and maximizing results. On days when a public meeting of the committee was scheduled, we’d try to make certain every senator knew what was likely to take place: the goal, if possible, was to have no heated arguments, no surprises. And those simple breakfast meetings helped bring about the harmony and the results he desired.

Suddenly, however, on a day close to the 1980 election, Sen. Thurmond decided to stop the breakfast meetings. That very afternoon the committee was to meet and vote on the confirmation of several judicial nominations. The meeting began, and heated argument over the nominees and their qualifications inevitably erupted. Voices were raised, higher and higher. Senators began to shake their fists. In the midst of the chaos, Sen. Kennedy turned to me, shook his head, and said, “Well, what did they teach you at Harvard about how to deal with this?”

Wisely not waiting for my reply, he divided the nominees into different groups, assigned senators to each, and adjourned the meeting. Immediately after, he went to see Sen. Thurmond. He persuaded him to lift the ban on bipartisan staff meetings. And the committee returned to getting its work done and working everything out.

I learned a great deal from Sen. Kennedy about how to be effective working with others. He wanted results, and he would tell us that, if you want a particular result, don’t worry too much about getting the credit. Be generous with the credit. Tell others what good ideas they have. “If you are successful,” he’d say, “there will be plenty of credit to go around. If you’re not successful, who wants credit for that?” That’s an excellent point to remember.

Perhaps most important was a single word I heard him say at a staff reunion. Several hundred current and former staff members and families gathered under a tent in Hyannis. The senator recited some family history. He said that his father had told him that what you should do in life is to gather able men and women of different backgrounds and talents around you and then get them to – and here is the word – “help.” Help each other. Help the senator you work for. Above all, help those who need your help the most.

Sen. Kennedy’s life has been about achieving goals that do just that, and he’s devoted 46 incredible years in the Senate to doing it. Think of neighborhood health centers. In his first term as a senator he noticed how well a neighborhood heath center, started here in Boston, was serving people in poverty; in 1966 he passed a bill that made that center a model; and today, based on that model, we have amazing health center networks in all 50 states.

Think of health insurance that travels along with workers who change jobs. Think of special health insurance for children, of parity in insurance for mental and physical illness, of schools that leave no child behind, of a nation that cares about citizens with disabilities.

I have mentioned just six of Sen. Kennedy’s successful legislative efforts. I could mention 60 or even 600, and that would not count them all. Think of all he has done to help assure the American working man and woman of a decent job at decent pay, to make America’s promise of fair and equal treatment a reality for minorities and women. Think of his work for immigrants, for refugees throughout the world. Consider his efforts to stop the spread of nuclear arms, to prevent unnecessary wars. Indeed, if you are a student here today 18, 19, or 20 years old and if you voted in last month’s presidential election, you were able to do so because in 1970 Sen. Kennedy lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

In all of this he has endlessly reached across the aisle, becoming a symbol of what Americans can do when they work together cooperatively in public life. That is the essence of the accomplishment that Harvard honors today with this degree, with this special convocation.

I’m proud that this University I love is bestowing this honorary degree on an eminently deserving son of Harvard whom I admire immensely and who will forever rank among the nation’s greatest senators.

I’m sure this degree means the world to him. I came of age in the early years of the New Frontier, and I know how proud his brothers, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, would be today, as Harvard honors their younger brother. Forty-six years ago he took up the Kennedy call to public service, and ever since, he has dedicated his own life to helping his country make impossible dreams become a reality for countless Americans and millions around the world.

I’m proud to be here now as Harvard says, “Well done, Senator, and thank you for caring so much about so many for so long. Our Commonwealth, our country, and our world are stronger, fairer, and better places because of all you have achieved.”

That’s what Harvard is saying, and I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so very much.