The Turn toward Theology
A history major at Duke, Kennedy was a member of the Order of Red Friars and Omicron Delta Kappa. He also sang in the Duke Chapel choir. When he graduated with his A.B. in 1970, he had served as president of both Beta Omega Sigma and the Duke YMCA, which at the time was the largest voluntary organization on campus.
“The late ’60s were troubled and troubling times,” says Kennedy. “I began to think that neither politics nor economics were going to answer the important questions, but the study of theology might. Theology gives one grounding and a perspective from which to work.”
As he considered seminary, Kennedy distinctly remembered the Duke Divinity students who spent summer internships at Myers Park United Methodist, his home church in Charlotte, N.C. “I loved Duke,” he says, “and so I didn’t even look anywhere else.”
His government internship followed what Kennedy considers the most intellectually stimulating semester of his academic career. During spring semester 1972, he had taken courses with Dean Thomas Langford and Harmon Smith. An independent study in church history with the late Stuart Henry led him to Richard Niebuhr by way of Niebuhr’s brother, Reinhold. “Reinhold is far more famous,” Henry had said, “but his brother Richard is more interesting.”
After reading virtually all of Reinhold Niebuhr and several books by Paul Tillich, Kennedy began getting anxious about writing all the papers required for the four courses he was taking in addition to the independent study.
But Professor Henry put him at ease. “He said, ‘We’re enjoying our conversations. You don’t need to write me a paper.’ It was wonderful, very liberating.”
Kennedy’s decision to take advantage of the internship in Washington set the course of his career. He returned to work in Hatfield’s office in January 1974 and served as a legislative assistant until his appointment to the Appropriations Committee staff in 1979. Two years later he became the majority staff director.
“The job of staff director is not so much to worry about the substantive content of each of those bills. That’s done by people in subcommittee. The job is to manage the staff, those writing the bills and reports, and to ensure that bills move through committee in a timely and orderly fashion, get to the Senate floor, are debated and eventually go to conference with the House of Representatives.”
Kennedy considers it one of the best jobs in the U.S. Senate. “To govern is to choose,” he says, quoting British politician Nigel Lawson. Not only was he in constant discussion with White House staffers, specifically the Office of Management and Budget, and Senate leaders—all stakeholders with competing interests in the appropriation bills—but he also was helping to make decisions affecting the lives of people every day throughout the United States and overseas.