I've defended Ted Kennedy against my ignorant political adversaries for years, but as I look back at his long career, I realize even I failed to fully grasp and appreciate his accomplishments.
I knew he was a man born into incredible wealth, yet dedicated his life to public service. And I don't mean becoming a professional politician—I mean True Public Service. I knew he dedicated his Senate career to champion the causes of the working class, to fight discrimination, for justice and equality. But I did not realize how great a hand he had in so many events that helped shape the country I take for granted. How his total contributions make him perhaps the greatest Senator to ever hold office.
The Immigration Act of 1965...The Fair Housing Act (1968)... The Bilingual Education Act (1968)...Lowering the age to vote to 18 (1970)... Occupational Health and Safety Act (1970)... Meals on Wheels (1972)... Title IX (1972)... Disabilities Education Act (1975)... Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act (1986)... Americorps... Family and Medical Leave Act (1994)... Children’s Health Insurance Program (1997)... Patients' Bill of Rights... Increasing the Minimum Wage several times...
And those are just the bills he wrote and sponsored. Throw in the support for the Civil Rights Movements in the 60s , and the dozens of less-known bills and his stalwart support for other good legislation and you can make a real case that Senator Ted Kennedy did more for more people and the cause of true democracy and equality than almost any politician in the country's history.
He still wore "Liberal" like a badge of honor long after it became a term of derision and was abandoned by almost all politicians. He used the safety of his seat to do what was right without regard to the politics and electoral considerations that paralyze the rest of the Democratic party.
He took the tragedies that befell him and his family and his own flaws and failings and dedicated his life to the powerless and downtrodden—at home and abroad.
He was "The Liberal." He was a fighter. He never sold out. And he never gave up.
His long list of accomplishments here.
For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.
I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of events, he always had time for a new colleague. I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the Presidency. And even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I've profited as President from his encouragement and wisdom.
An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.
For me, there are two types of senators worth emulating. One is best exemplified by Paul Wellstone, an unapologetic fighter who never backs down. The other is Teddy Kennedy, who got more accomplished than any senator in history by knowing when to cut a deal. For me, this is Kennedy's most important legacy. He will be studied by every future senator. And I hope those senators learn something from the exercise.
We've just lost the best and most effective senator to ever serve in the institution. As a man, he had large flaws. As a politician, he had no peer.
America has had a few precious individuals who are both passionate about social justice and also understand deep in their bones its practical meaning. And we have had a few who possess great political shrewdness and can make the clunky machinery of democratic governance actually work. But I have known but one person who combined all these traits and abilities. His passing is an inestimable loss.
Most Americans will never know how many things Ted Kennedy did to make their lives better, how many things he prevented that would have hurt them, and how tenaciously he fought on their behalf. In 1969, for example, he introduced a bill in the Senate calling for universal health insurance, and then, for the next forty years, pushed and prodded colleagues and presidents to get on with it. If and when we ever achieve that goal it will be in no small measure due to the dedication and perseverance of this one remarkable man. We owe it to him and his memory to do it soon and do it well.
Kennedy, one of the last unabashed liberals on the political stage and a warrior for progressive causes, was 77. Rest in peace, Senator. You will be sorely missed.
It is a shame Kennedy couldn't have lived long enough to see his dream of universal healthcare coverage become a reality. Although, at this rate, it's not a sure bet any of us will. Recently, I saw someone suggest that Kennedy's demise might spur Democrats to push harder for a more progressive reform bill. Far more likely is that the business-as-usual crowd and the sad-sack "centrists" will secretly sigh in relief and whisper "Thank god that pain in the ass is out of the way."
I have some thoughts of my own, but I'm just coming off deadline, and can barely string together a post of blockquotes. More to come...
UPDATE: An excellent profile by Charlie Pierce from 2003.
UPDATE 2: PETITION TO THE SENATE: "Ted Kennedy was a courageous champion for health care reform his entire life. In his honor, name the reform bill that passed Kennedy's health committee 'The Kennedy Bill' -- then pass it, and nothing less, through the Senate." Sign it. Even though I don't think Harry Reid gives a shit, it's the least we can do. Reform opponents are willing to make public spectacles of themselves—the least we can do is sign the petition.