Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The lion at rest: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

We’ve known this was coming for forever, it seems, but when the news arrived late last night it was still a shock and surprise. He’d come through so many battles in the past, personal and congressional; maybe we hoped for one more comeback from adversity, one more win, one more hurrah.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy, father, uncle, brother, sailor, unabashed keeper of the liberal flame in American politics and for forty-seven years the unapologetically liberal voice and conscience of the United States Senate, died Tuesday night of a glioblastoma multiforma of the left parietal lobe of the brain, an aggressive tumor diagnosed in May 2008. He was 77 years old.

The passing of the lion of liberal causes more than closes a chapter in a family’s history. It ends with irrevocable finality an era of American politics in which bipartisanship was not only possible but more commonplace than today, a time when reaching across the aisle wasn’t just a good idea, it was a concession to the notion that, again unlike today, “the loyal opposition” could be defined as much by the modifier in that phrase as by its seemingly defining noun.

Since 1962, Kennedy’s central pursuit has been affordable quality health care for all Americans; the battle for that national health care has again taken center stage, as the Democrats show the possibility of moving that ball down the field for the first time in generations. It’s anyone’s guess how much further along the health-care bill would be toward becoming law had Teddy been in a condition to weigh in on from the Senate chamber floor.

But it’s inescapable that the senator from Massachusetts was a meaningful exception to the usual rule of Washington politicians, and his exceptionalism — as a human being, a leader and a champion of health care reform — could be the unspoken dimension of the health-care debate now raging in Washington.

Cruel irony: Going forward, it’s possible that Sen. Ted Kennedy may have more immediate impact on the advancement of health-care reform now, after his passing, than he could summon from his fellow senators when he strode the halls of power on Capitol Hill.

After then-eldest brother John was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963; after older brother Robert was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, the dynastic title of presidential heir apparent fell to Ted Kennedy. He was already a sitting senator, had been since 1962. For many if not most political observers, it would be only natural, according to the ascensionist tendencies of American politicians, for Teddy to seek the White House. Teddy did not disappoint.

In 1980, he made his one run for the big chair, challenging incumbent Jimmy Carter and losing to Carter in a bitter primary campaign, despite Kennedy’s attempt to get Carter-committed delegates released from their pledges. After that defeat, Kennedy hunkered down in the Senate, making his long-term intentions plain in 1985, when he announced he wouldn’t seek the presidency in 1988:

“I know this decision means I may never be president. But the pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is.”

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted last year: “[T]he trouble with so many senators nowadays [is] they’ve got that dream in their minds of the presidency, so they don’t settle down to that institution.”

And Ted Kennedy settled down in that institution; he walked it like he talked it in 1985, and in so doing transforming the United States Senate — and the United States of America — in ways he might never have achieved had he just become president.

Of 2,500 bills he introduced, more than 300 were made into law. Kennedy was a catalyst, if not the catalyst, behind legislation that ultimately led to COBRA (health insurance benefits for the unemployed), Meals of Wheels, AmeriCorps, Title IX (athletic programs for women students), HIPAA (which set new benchmarks for portability of consumers’ insurance and the confidentiality of patient records), SCHIP (childrens’ health insurance) and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

And Kennedy was poised, until illness got in the way, to follow through on that abiding passion in a new Obama administration — an administration he helped come to pass at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 25, 2008, a year to the day before he died.

“For me this is a season of hope, new hope for justice and a fair prosperity for the many and not just for the few,” Kennedy said at Invesco Field in Denver.

And then, reprising a speech he first made in December 1979: “And that is the cause of my life — new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old, will have decent quaoity health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”

The irony is apparent and cruel: Kennedy’s words were as apt in 2008 as they were in 1979; the idea that the ball hasn’t been advanced on making national health-care reform a reality in almost thirty years is one of the nation’s more profound tragedies.

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The question is, what happens now? The Obama health-care reform bill is set for a vote sometime in September. Some have voiced the possibility, however remote in today’s climate, that Kennedy’s passing (from a form of one of the diseases that’s long been the insurance industry’s pre-existing tripwire for denial of service) might elicit an emotionally galvanizing reaction, maybe even latent support from obstructionist Blue Dog Democrats and No-addicted Republicans. One of those on the hard-headed right, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, said outright that there’s no reason to think Kennedy’s death will change any minds on Capitol Hill.

His death may not change many minds; the open question is whether it changes any hearts. Because at root, that’s what this is all about: something that’s not so much an intellectual or actuarial matter as it is a moral issue, a matter of empathy not for one’s fellow citizens, but for one’s fellow human beings.

Despite Kennedy’s efforts, and to our eternal national shame, the quest for national health care continues. The dream of achieving it may never be closer to realization than it is right now. When it arrives, we can thank that all-too-human champion of everyday people, that irrepressible sailor in the Figawi regatta, that captain who steered hard by the North Star of his principles, for making it happen.
Image credits: Kennedy top: Senate photograph (public domain). Kennedy 1962: Public domain. Kennedy 1980: Still from CBS News. Kennedy 2008: Pool.

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