'Everybody knows about it,' Senator Kennedy blithely continued, adding that he had already given a radio interview on the subject. Mr Donovan - depressed that the mishap had already gone beyond spin control - was perplexed by his boss's nonchalance.
Only gradually, as Senator Kennedy's voice indistinctly mumbled through the ether, did Mr Donovan realise that the Senator's preoccupation was not a sinking sailing boat but the US air strike on Baghdad which had taken place that morning. What in fact Senator Kennedy had said was: 'Paul, we hit Iraq.'
Sensitivity to accidents involving Senator Kennedy by his staff is all the greater because in November he faces his toughest fight for his Senate seat in Massachusetts since he was elected in 1962. 'For the first time in 32 years Kennedy has lost his lock on re-election,' says Lou DiNatale, a political analyst at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs in Boston.
Senator Kennedy is vulnerable because he is tainted by scandal and facing, for the first time, an effective and wealthy Republican challenger. 'You wouldn't bet against him, but you wouldn't bet it heavy,' says Mr DiNatale.
Fortunately for the Senator, memories are beginning to fade of his bar-crawl in Palm Beach in 1991 which culminated in the Kennedy-Smith rape case. This in turn revived his reputation as a drink- sodden womaniser which he has tried to live down since Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned when his car went off a bridge into a salt-water pond at Chappaquiddick on Martha's Vineyard in 1969. 'If Kennedy-Smith was last year it might have sunk him,' says one local observer.
There is some cynicism in Boston about Senator Kennedy's claim to have become a steadier, more sober person under the influence of his new wife, Vicki. She stood beside him as he formally opened his campaign last week but, as one Massachusetts politician put it, 'people view it as a bit like Rock Hudson's marriage'.
These doubts about Senator Kennedy's character are hardly new but they did not matter much in the past because, in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, the Republicans were so weak. In 1988 his opponent, who won 34 per cent of the vote, spent a negligible dollars 600,000 ( pounds 400,000). This year he faces Mitt Romney, 47, a millionaire businessman who is prepared to spend dollars 8m of his own money on the campaign.
The problem for the Republicans is simple. Local analysts say that, on a good turn-out, the Republicans can rely on 40 per cent of voters who detest the Kennedy family and their quasi-royal status in Massachusetts. They therefore need a candidate who can get another 11 per cent of the votes.
In Texas and New Jersey in the past year the Republicans have won important elections by running moderate women who favour - or at least do not oppose - freedom of choice on abortion. This helps chip away at the Democratic advantage among working women which put Bill Clinton in the White House in 1992. In Massachusetts, however, the Republicans believed they had no choice but to adopt a candidate who comes equipped with a multi-million campaign chest even though Mr Romney, a Mormon, may be too far to the right on abortion and gun control for many voters.
In his opening speech Senator Kennedy accused Mr Romney of waffling on both issues. Much more dangerous for the Democrats would have been a Republican like Governor William Weld, an ex- federal prosecutor, who is socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Despite his immense popularity, Mr Weld decided, after careful polling, not to run against Senator Kennedy, apparently calculating that it would be a tough fight, which, if he lost, might end his presidential ambitions.
Mr Romney is likely to attack Senator Kennedy for not having done enough for Massachusetts in the past 32 years. But this is a dangerous theme. With Mr Clinton as President, Senator Kennedy is more powerful than ever. Mr Clinton needs him to pass health care through the Senate. Other powerful Democratic barons - like the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Don Rostenkowski, and the Senate majority leader, George Mitchell - are disappearing but he is still there. There is little Senator Kennedy could ask for Massachusetts that the White House would not grant.
This matters in any state but particularly in Massachusetts. The old Irish political machines have decayed. For the first time for decades the mayor of Boston is of Italian and not Irish stock. But the traditions of patronage politics run deep. 'My first job as senator is to fight for jobs for Massachusetts,' Senator Kennedy said last week, and voters know he is well placed to do just that.
Ability to deliver federal dollars is important because the Democrats were badly hit when the economy of the state crashed in 1989. The previous year, Governor Michael Dukakis had campaigned for the presidency on the back of the so-called economic miracle in Massachusetts. High defence spending and the success of micro- electronics firms like Wang and Digital saw house prices rising by 25 per cent a year.
When the crash came, liberal Democrats suffered across the state. Mr Weld became Governor, selling state zoos and skating rinks but being liberal on gay rights and feminism. The Republicans seemed finally to have found the right ingredients for political success. But by 1992 voters across New England were blaming George Bush for the economic recession and in Massachusetts he got just 29 per cent of the vote.
Polls show that after 32 years of Senator Kennedy, almost 60 per cent of voters say it is time for a change. This is cheering for Republicans but nobody knows how Mr Romney will stand up to the battering of an election campaign and turn disapproval of the Senator into votes for himself. He will hope voters notice that the 25th anniversary of Kopechne's death at Chappaquiddick is in July but, without another Ted Kennedy accident, this may not prove enough.
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