Sen. Edward M. Kennedy: Champion of Noble Causes

Thursday, August 27, 2009

TED KENNEDY once said that his own legislative record was one he'd love to run against. A number of people tried, of course, and lost. But then, they weren't Ted Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy spent 46 years in the Senate hewing pretty steadily to his course while others trimmed their sails or just plain bailed out.

He remained committed to a brand of New Deal and postwar liberalism that, even when it had lost some of its luster and had run up against a conservative tide in politics, still had much to offer the country. Mr. Kennedy knew that he was one legislator who could take the stands he did and not worry about reelection. More important, he advanced his causes with passion and energy, and, because he was able not only to work with colleagues across the political spectrum but also to endear himself to many of them, he became a major force in the Senate and the country. Such was his authority that many people this spring and summer believed health-care reform would have advanced much further through Congress had Mr. Kennedy been healthy enough to assume his customary shepherding role.

One winter's day during the most recent presidential campaign, a crowd numbering in the thousands gathered on a Washington campus and overflowed the field house to hear the senator give his blessing to a new colleague who was a little over a year old when Ted Kennedy came to Washington. That the old "Lion of the Senate," as he was often called, could have done so much to help Barack Obama's campaign take flight that January day was testimony to both the enduring appeal of the Kennedy name and to the connection much of his party still felt to Mr. Kennedy and his causes. Throughout his career he stood by some of the country's most neglected and abused people: minorities, immigrants, the poor and those lacking access to good health care, to name just some of them.

When Mr. Kennedy first ran for the Senate from Massachusetts, he wasn't even quite old enough to serve, and his record, which included an expulsion from Harvard University for cheating, was undistinguished. "The Cambridge intellectual establishment was aghast at his candidacy," writes John F. Kennedy biographer Thomas Reeves. Many felt that the Kennedy family saw him as being in line to assume the presidency by right. But in 1969, the senator drove off a bridge at a place called Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts, and a young woman in the senator's car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. The failure of the senator and others who were with him at Chappaquiddick to report the accident for hours afterward was a shocking act with long-lasting consequences for all involved. It did not end Mr. Kennedy's presidential ambitions -- he tried and failed to take the nomination from Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- but it greatly reduced his chances of fulfilling them.

Mr. Kennedy, however, chose not to disappear or to settle in for a long run as a senior statesman. His record shows the work of a committed, diligent legislator, and it earned the respect of those who disagreed with him as much as the loyalty of those who worked for and with him. He fought hard and persistently on a broad variety of matters, including education (the No Child Left Behind Act), the environment, gay rights, student loans and immigration reform. Indeed, he stood as a major figure in just about every major area of legislation.

As with most of us, his final days were another object lesson in the necessity of good health care. He thought it should be available to everyone, and he worked until the end to make that a reality. Moving toward that goal would be the greatest tribute his fellow legislators could pay him.

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