The Take

The Take: Kennedy's Legacy

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was the last of an American political dynasty, rising to prominence alongside his brothers John and Robert. He served more than four decades in the Senate and led a life rife with triumph and tragedy. Vincent Bzdek, who is author of 'The Kennedy Legacy,' narrates the slideshow.
By Dan Balz
Thursday, August 27, 2009

For a generation or more, Edward M. Kennedy held two roles in the political life of the country. He was the vibrant symbol of American liberalism in an era of conservative ascendance. He was also the vigorous embodiment of a pragmatic legislator in an era of deep partisan divisions and political polarization.

Kennedy's death Tuesday from brain cancer brought an end to one of the most storied political careers of the past half-century. That he died at a moment when one of the greatest causes of his lifetime -- enactment of universal health insurance -- faces major obstacles on Capitol Hill only underscored the void his absence has left.

He was the last of the Kennedy brothers, the patriarch of one of the most glamorous, influential and star-crossed families in American political history.

He sought the presidency but never achieved the ultimate prize in politics, which once seemed part of his destiny. With his defeat at the hands of incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980 and later that decade his decision never to run for president again, Kennedy seemed liberated from trying to emulate his brothers John and Robert in a quest for the White House. He stayed in the Senate and went on to become, President Obama said Wednesday, the "greatest senator of our time."

Obama owes his presidency in part to the endorsement he received from Kennedy at a critical moment in his Democratic nomination battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Kennedy had urged Obama to run in 2008 rather than waiting, as others counseled, and in watching the response to Obama's candidacy he came to believe that the young senator represented a new hope of changing the country's political climate. In return for Kennedy's backing, Obama agreed to make enactment of health-care legislation one of his first priorities, a promise the president will be trying to fulfill when Congress returns next month.

Kennedy was steadfast in his political ideology. He was the champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the weak and dispossessed. He battled for the causes of civil rights and women's rights and health-care and education spending. He believed in the power of government, whether it was in or out of fashion, as a force for change and for good. He voted against the resolution authorizing the Iraq war in 2002 and became one of the war's fiercest critics.

The senator's Web site Wednesday featured a quotation that summed up that commitment, one that came from his speech to the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York as the last flames of his presidential candidacy were extinguished. "For all those whose cares have been our concern," he said to an audience in which many were weeping, "the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."

Charles Campion, a Boston-based political consultant who recalled standing for 12 hours at a VFW hall in West Roxbury, Mass., during Kennedy's first race for the Senate in 1962, said: "His greatest legacy was his own faith and unwavering beliefs. He followed his own compass and, regardless of polls and even his own political vulnerabilities, he would never compromise or finesse on his principles."

Those convictions made Kennedy a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives. Through much of the past quarter-century, his name was used by Republican strategists to tar other politicians running for office. (A CNN poll from early August reported that 64 percent of Republicans held an unfavorable opinion of Kennedy, compared with 11 percent of Democrats. Three-quarters of Democrats, and 28 percent of Republicans, said they held a favorable opinion of Kennedy.)

Yet, when George W. Bush came to the White House in 2001, it was Kennedy to whom he reached out for help in passing the No Child Left Behind Act.

That, too, was typical of Kennedy's life and legacy. As much as he was the liberal's liberal, he was the legislator's legislator, a man willing and able to work across party lines, a politician of deep conviction who knew how and when to cut a deal.

Not that Kennedy shrank from partisan combat. His relentless attacks on Robert Bork in blocking his 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court will long be remembered by conservatives and Republicans for their harshness.

But he believed in the end that the role of a politician was to make progress -- if not all at once, then step by step. He loved the Senate, and his affable personality helped lubricate relationships that otherwise might never have existed. Tributes from Republicans on Wednesday underscored what he had accomplished.

Kennedy's legacy also is one of personal redemption. His first dreams of winning the White House were derailed in 1969 when he drove off a bridge on Martha's Vineyard's Chappaquiddick Island, resulting in the death of a passenger in his car, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. The episode trailed him for years.

His 1980 campaign foundered in part because of Kennedy's own limitations as a candidate. Through many of those years, his personal life was in turmoil, and his first marriage ended in divorce. But he turned his life around, aided by a new marriage to Victoria Reggie, and settled into his role as a leader of the Senate.

Kennedy's death came a year to the day after he appeared before the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Everyone in the hall knew it would be the last convention Kennedy would address.

His body was weak, but his spirit was strong and his voice resonant. "I have come here tonight," he said in his rich Boston accent, "to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States."

He lived to see Obama elected and inaugurated, though not to participate in the battle to change the nation's health-care system. But he has left behind a legacy that few in public life will ever achieve.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company