In the U.S. Senate there are 100 men and women, two from every state, whom are part of what is called, “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” No one senator has any more clout than another. It is a body of equals.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some exceptional men and women who through their accomplishments and acumen don’t separate themselves from the pack. Edward Moore Kennedy served for nearly 50 years in the Senate and was the personification of the power and possibilities of liberalism. If anyone came closest to being known as “The Senator” it was Kennedy. For those of us who admired and respected Kennedy we can only quietly agree with President Obama when he hailed the Masschusettes icon as “the greatest United States Senator of our time.”
As the last surviving son of the Kennedy dynasty he contributed a lifetime of public service, exhibited both great personal courage and shocking lapses of responsibility. If we hardly knew his brothers John and Robert as they were both taken in the flower of their youth, Ted carried on the legacy of the Kennedy family and build on it in a way that had an incalculable impact on the course of the nation.
As an African-American, it’s hard to think of a time when there wasn’t a Kennedy name attached to the struggle for equal rights for minorities, women and others closed out of their piece of the American Dream. Ted Kennedy didn’t have to go that route. He had enough money and power to keep his hands clean and out of the dirty, difficult work of opening up the doors that had been shut in the faces of Black people. I am personally grateful he chose to stand in the fire and fight for what he believed was right.
The chorus of voices lauding the life and times and accomplishments of Senator Kennedy will drown out the disapproving few who will sneer at his clueless liberal politics, his expanding girth, the key role he played in derailing the right-wing extremist Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination and of course, the horrible judgment he displayed in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne who died in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969.
Ted Kennedy was a man of great virtues and great flaws, but he overcame his weaknesses and through time and trial, came closest to realizing the greatness of the Kennedy legacy.
Kennedy’s presidential ambitions effectively died with Kopechne and despite a fierce fight with Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1980, he would be more effective as the iconic elder statesman supporting the candidacies of John Kerry and Barack Obama.
Maybe Kennedy was where he belonged in the Senate. If you’re going to make a difference as a legislator you have to be willing to make enemies. Kennedy had plenty of those, but some of the resentment came from him being very good at getting things done. Even those who hated Kennedy and everything he stood for must admit if they have any honesty that he was a man of principle and knew how to work the process to see his agenda through.
As President Obama struggles to regain the initiative in the crucial battle over national healthcare reform, one of Kennedy’s unrealized ambitions, I wish—I hope—that Obama takes it upon himself to make it a centerpiece of his presidency to see this through to the end and doesn’t compromise away the heart and soul of the reform to gain a few Republican votes. Not even Obama would say he is at the core of his being as much of an unabashed liberal as Ted Kennedy was.
Kennedy first gave his blessing to Obama in 2006 when he asked should he mount a presidential run. Kennedy replied, “Your time only comes once, and this is your time.” When he formally gave Obama his endorsement Kennedy invoked his brother John’s presidency and the potential he brought to the nation before his untimely demise.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And with Barack Obama, we can do it again,” Kennedy said and last November the voters agreed with his optimism.
Among the accolades and tributes that will follow over the next few days for Ted Kennedy, the president should make it not just a priority, but a mission to make sure Kennedy’s lifelong fight for no American ever to have to fear getting sick due to a lack of access to health care becomes a reality. Obama needs to draw on a bit of Kennedy’s passion and fight like hell for what may be the signature issue of his presidency.
Kennedy’s battles are over and now the historians will have the last word on the totality of his life. President Obama and the Democratic Party owe Kennedy nothing less than the same degree of compassion and commitment to a better and finer nation than he demonstrated for 47 years.