by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
August 26, 2009
THE LAST LIBERAL LION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Democratic Party's most stalwart defender of civil rights, labor rights, health care, immigration, housing and education for nearly five decades in the U.S. Senate has left us.
On Tuesday night, cancer claimed the life of Edward M. Kennedy, the 77-year-old senior senator from Massachusetts. Looking back over his long career, it's hard to imagine the Democratic Party without Ted Kennedy at the point, keeping up the fight for the liberal ideals that once defined the party in its best years.
His personal life has been filled with tragedy, mistakes and disappointments. When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, Ted Kennedy was dismissed as a lightweight riding the coattails of his more accomplished older brothers. But he rose above that to become arguably one of the most effective Senators in history.
The record of public service of his generation of the family is considerable. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. lost his life in World War II. John F. Kennedy became one of our most iconic presidents. Robert F. Kennedy picked up the falling torch after his brother's assassination and probably would have been president had he not met the same fate of his older brother. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died two weeks ago, founded the Special Olympics and was a stalwart advocate for the mentally retarded.
That kind of record would be daunting for anyone to match. But in his 47 years in the Senate, the list of Ted Kennedy's legislative accomplishments is long and distinguished. He cosponsored the first bipartisan campaign finance reform bill in 1974. He was a key backer of Title IX, the 1972 amendment requiring colleges and university to spend equally on men's and women's athletic programs. He fought to get the federal minimum wage increased on several occasions. He was instrumental in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the State Children's Health Insurance Program and many other health care initiatives. There has been scarcely a piece of social legislation that he was not consulted upon before passage.
For decades, Kennedy has been the dealmaker and coalition builder in the Senate. The praise that he has received from both sides of the aisle is an indication of the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues.
For liberals, he was the one constant from the bright promise of the New Frontier to the dark days of the Reagan-Bush years. For conservatives, he was the surefire bogeyman trotted out for every fundraising campaign. But he transcended the politics of Washington to become a truly national figure who had the one thing that his older brothers Joseph, John and Robert never got to have - the gift of time.
But now Ted Kennedy is gone, and at the time when the Democrats need him the most. After decades of fighting for health care reform, we are now closer to achieving it than ever before. On the eve of victory in what what Kennedy called "the cause of my life" -providing health insurance to all Americans - fate struck him down with an incurable brain cancer.
In a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention -one year to the day of his death- he symbolically passed the torch of leadership to a new generation as he spoke in support of Barack Obama.
"We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavor, but when John Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn't say, 'It's too far to get there. We shouldn't even try.' Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon.
"Yes, we are all Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again.
"There is a new wave of change all around us, and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination -- not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation."
It is now up to all of us who still believe in those ideals to keep riding that wave. We cannot succumb to the fears of those who say change is not possible. This is the legacy that Ted Kennedy leaves us.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.