Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sen. Ted Kennedy: 1932-2009

Sad news out of Washington Tuesday night, as Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy (D-Mass.) lost his battle with brain cancer. He was 77.

"Edward M. Kennedy - the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply - died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port," a statement from Kennedy's family said. "We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever. We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it's hard to imagine any of them without him."

Kennedy was one of the Senate's longest-standing and most influencial members. He had a hand in virtually every major policy to come out of Washington in the last four decades having to do with civil rights, health care or the economic well-being of the middle class. He supported equal rights for all, he tried repeatedly to bring universal health care to America, and it seemed that every time Congress considered raising minimum wage, Kennedy was right there, fighting for the common folk.

In recent years, Kennedy was an outspoken supporter of Barack Obama in his bid for the White House, passing over Hillary Clinton and claiming he saw much in Obama what made his late brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, so great. He likened Obama to a new generation of leaders that was necessary in Washington, and he gave a rousing, emotional speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention -- despite having been diagnosed with a malignent brain tumor.

Things weren't perfect for Kennedy; on top of watching his older brothers die tragically and in the public eye -- John while serving as President and Robert while running for that office -- Kennedy had to deal with lifelong back and neck problems after a 1964 plane crash that almost killed him. He also had a messy divorce, and in 1969 Kennedy crashed his car, while drunk, into the Chappaquiddick River, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown. He saw three nephews die as well, including John F. Kennedy Jr., and he battled alcohol use for years.

The incident with Kopechne effectively killed Kennedy's bid for President in 1980, but he stayed in the Senate and continued fighting for what he believed in. Kennedy held the torch of liberalism when others in his party turned from it; they were too worried that liberalism wasn't cool, and they wanted to curry favor with constituents and Republican lawmakers alike. Kennedy was capable of working with Republicans, but he never shied away from his liberal attitudes.

The health care bill that came out of the Senate Health Education Pension and Labor (HELP) Committee a few months ago has been affectionately called "the Kennedy bill" since so much of his work went into it. Though Kennedy never achieved his dream of health care for all, he did work over the years to ensure greater access to care for children and the elderly -- he was a staunch supporter of Medicare, Medicaid and VA health care, as well as S-CHIP.

Just last month, Kennedy wrote an article for Newsweek called "The Cause of My Life," detailing his dedication to universal health care. It was a powerful and moving piece, and I can only hope Kennedy's words have a greater resonance in light of his passing.

It seems cruel, in a way, for Kennedy to pass before Congress could come back from recess to vote on health care reform. Kennedy was one of the Senate's most ardent health care reform supporters, and I know it would've given him great joy if he'd been able to live long enough to see Obama sign a bill that would grant quality, affordable health care to all.

Then again, the truly great people in society -- past and present -- rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their labor. It is cruel, but maybe it's also appropriate for Kennedy to pass before a health care bill became law. I can only hope that Democrats can use his death as a rallying point, a way to finally come together, stop bickering with one another and pass a bill that would help the average American with health care.

And I hope it bears Kennedy's name. I can think of no better legacy for a man who gave so much of his public life trying to help the common man.

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