Mr. Kennedy Goes to Washington

By Enuma Okoro D’03

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.

Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
James Keith Kennedy T’70, D’74

“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.”

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.

Those decisions mean balancing competing interests. “Are we going to put more money into national parks, highways, defense, foreign aid, medical research, education?” asks Kennedy. “And how do you make sure the program is doing what it is supposed to be doing?”

Kennedy says he was proud to assist Hatfield as the senator “argued for a sound fiscal policy and resisted short-sighted efforts to make steep reductions in education, health research, and a variety of domestic programs.” According to Gerry Frank, former chief of staff for Sen. Hatfield, the contribution was significant.

“Keith Kennedy is one of the best, most loyal and experienced leaders in the history of the U.S. Senate,” says Frank.

In 1997, Kennedy left government to work with former Sen. Howard Baker and his Washington law firm—Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. After seven years, he had the opportunity in 2003 to return to the Senate to serve in the office of Sergeant at Arms, an organization with more than 800 employees and an annual budget of several hundred million dollars.

Elected by the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms serves as chief security officer and is responsible for preserving order in the Senate chamber, galleries and Senate side of the Capitol.

After 9/11, the office demanded a director experienced in law enforcement. Bill Pickle, a career Secret Service agent, became the sergeant-at-arms, and Kennedy, who brought years of administrative experience, was named deputy. He assisted in planning the state funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, and escorted Mikail Gorbachev, former president of the U.S.S.R., when he paid his last respects. In 2005, Kennedy helped establish protocol for the second inauguration of President George W. Bush.

Kennedy left that post in January 2005 to serve once more as majority staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Serving with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss), he was part of “months of effort to get federal relief for the people of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.”

In September 2006, Kennedy retired after 28 years of government service and returned to the Washington, D.C., office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell, & Berkowitz, one of the 100 largest firms in the United States, as managing director and senior public policy advisor.

His colleague Mark van de Water, a senior lobbyist at the firm, praises Kennedy’s methodical approach to public policy.

“Keith emphasizes doing things the right way,” says van de Water. “His approach is measured and careful with an eye to long term effectiveness versus going with the most expedient way, the latter of which is more the normal way of operating in public policy.” 

While the numbers of those who have moved from seminary to government service may not be high, his path is hardly unique, says Kennedy. Among others he cites whose careers have followed similar trajectories are Congressman David Price (D-N.C.) and former Senator and U.N. Ambassador John C. Danforth. Price went to Yale Divinity School before becoming a political science and public policy professor at Duke and then pursuing a seat in Congress; Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest.

Kennedy has always valued his seminary degree, and felt that he chose an alternative ministry in government service. “I have from time to time wondered what it would have been like to serve in the ordained ministry,” he says. “But that is a very challenging journey, and one must be very sure of the calling.”

He has always believed that a theological education is great preparation for a variety of careers, adds Kennedy. “I tried to make that point repeatedly in my time on the Divinity School Board of Visitors.”

The Divinity School shouldn’t think of itself solely as a vocational school training men and women for the ordained ministry, but as providing a theological education to students who will take a variety of paths through life, maintains Kennedy. “As the blues artist Keb’ Mo’ has written, ‘There’s more than one way home.’”

Kennedy’s commitment to public service takes many subtle forms on all levels of his current work, says van de Water: “He always treats everyone with the same level of respect and concern. It is as though he never seems to lose sight of being a public servant, someone who is there to serve people.”    

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