Troop withdrawal from Vietnam...the Watergate break-in...Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election. These were among the headlines in the fall of 1972, when a youthful seminary student arrived in the nation’s capital for a government internship.
What Keith Kennedy remembers most clearly about his Divinity School-sponsored internship is watching Sen. Sam Ervin and Sen. Howard Baker preside over the Watergate hearings.
“It was a lively time, and I felt like I was at the epicenter of things,” he says. Kennedy had been assigned to the office of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon known for crossing party lines. In 1970, Hatfield had joined George McGovern to co-sponsor an amendment calling for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
Kennedy found Hatfield to be “a faithful Christian who was very supportive of a divinity school student intern.” After the year-long hiatus in Washington, Kennedy returned to finish his master of divinity degree at Duke. He had not ruled out pursuing ordination or doctoral work, and he seriously considered both options. But Hatfield had offered him a job in his Senate office, and ultimately Kennedy decided to return to the capital.
“In my time at the Divinity School, I came to see that a faithful life was not about individual piety, but communion,” says Kennedy. “A communion of saints, if you will. Pursuing a career in public service flowed naturally from that.”
Kennedy is the only person who has served three terms as majority staff director for the chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations: twice under Hatfield, 1980-1986 and 1995-1997, and again under Chairman Sen. Thad Cochran, January 2005-September 2006.
The Committee on Appropriations is the Senate’s largest committee. With 12 subcommittees, it has jurisdiction over more than a trillion dollars of federal spending each year.
“The appropriations bills written by that committee each year influence every activity the federal government undertakes,” says Kennedy. “And those bills are the only legislation that Congress must pass every year.”
When repeatedly asked how he got from divinity school to “politics,” Kennedy is quick to point out the clear distinction between “politics” and his role in the U.S. Senate.
The legislative process affects peoples’ lives regardless of their political persuasions, says Kennedy. “Politics, on the other hand, is the process of seeking to be elected and seeking to stay elected,” says Kennedy. “I was never involved in any political campaign. I spent my entire 28 years in the Senate working in the legislative process without paying much attention to which party might gain political advantage.”