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Happy the Artist's Kennedy Connection

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It's the meeting of the minds that almost was: Richmond's own Happy the Artist and the recently departed lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy.

But back in the boiling-hot, political pressure-cooker summer of 1974 the two men brushed shoulders, co-joined by their moral opposition to then-President Richard M. Nixon.

Kennedy, who died last month, was a young senator living in the shadows of his brothers' tall legacies. But he'd taken up the health-care reform torch, arguing in court that June against Nixon's pocket veto of a health-care bill.

Happy, still known as James Patrick Kuhn, was a struggling, young, hippie artist with high-minded political ideals. As a Washington Post freelance sketch artist he channeled some of his righteous Nixon anger, and was sent to cover the Kennedy trial.

“I was involved in the Watergate thing,” says Happy, at the time still hot after a recent showing of portraits at the Watergate Hotel of some of the imbroglio's seminal and notorious figures. “It was us against them, the hippies against the guys with the short hair.”

“It wasn't a huge courtroom as I remember,” Happy says, reaching back to the day he captured Kennedy's likeness arguing his case against Nixon.

Weeks after the sketch ran alongside a Post article about the trial, Happy received a letter at his Alexandria studio — from Kennedy.

“I liked and admired your sketch that appeared in the Washington Post on June 11,” Kennedy wrote. “The sketch caught the moment clearly, and I would very much like to have the original for my office.”

Moderately flattered, and more importantly suffering from the artist's chronic shortness of funding, Happy called Kennedy's office offering the painting — for a fair fee.

“So the secretary who answered says, ‘I’m sorry, the senator does not pay for anything,' or something like that,” he recalls. “I was like, OK, so meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Kennedy never got universal health care or Happy's painting. The artist, who lost the painting in a later studio fire, still has Kennedy's letter.

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