Friday, 04 September 2009 19:10

Homage to Ted Kennedy

Jim DiEugenio reviews Edward Kennedy's long political career, and asks: Did any senator ever pass so much legislation that impacted the lives of so many people? But more specifically, and more pointedly: Was any senator ever involved in this much legislation whose aim was to help people who really needed the help and had no one to lobby for them?

I was on vacation with my sister in that blessed haven of Santa Barbara when I learned of the death of Senator Ted Kennedy on August 25th. When I first heard of it, I thought it would be treated as a rather high profile senator dying in office. Was I ever wrong.

It dominated the air waves for four days. The outpouring of grief and admiration and loss had to have been unprecedented for a senator in our lifetime. Perhaps in American history: the televised lying in state at the JFK Library, the Irish wake on Friday night, the Saturday Requiem mass attended by President Obama and three former presidents, and the following interment at Arlington near his brothers. These all had a regality and national prominence that rivaled the death of presidents – and actually surpassed some of them. Cumulatively it was kind of overwhelming.

And then you look at the list of bills he was responsible for, and it gets more overwhelming. Over three hundred of his bills were passed into law. In more or less chronological order, he was actively involved in, or directly responsible for, what follows: the famous civil rights laws of 1964-65, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which helped end a quota system based upon nationality), and the creation of the National Teachers Corps.

In 1971, before it was fashionable, he called for an independent Ireland. In 1968, a little late, he began to assail Richard Nixon's Vietnam policies. After the Watergate scandal, he began pushing for campaign finance reform, and he was one of the leaders behind the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974.

Kennedy was always in the forefront of bills that really had no active or influential constituencies in Washington. Therefore he chaired a sub committee on political refugees from Vietnam, China and Russia. Back in the seventies, he was unequaled in his support for women's and gay rights. When the Democrats entered their Dark Ages, that is the Reagan years of 1980-88, he became a master of parliamentary procedure and did all he could to slow down the conservative express. But along with that, he supported extending the Voting Rights Act something that the Reagan Justice Department wanted to drop to gain white support in the south. He was one of the early advocates for funding for AIDS treatments. He was a strong supporter for the vigorous enforcement of Title IX, which allowed for equal rights for women to participate in college athletics and extra-curricular activities. He was in the forefront of the opposition to Reagan's intervention in Central America i.e. the bloody and not-so-secret wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Kennedy resisted and ridiculed some of the rather extravagant and unnecessary Pentagon boondoggles of the Reagan years e.g. the B-1 bomber, the MX missile, and its Strategic Defense Initiative – which he satirized as "Star Wars". Instead, he wanted to prolong and strengthen the ABM Treaty and he supported the movement for a nuclear freeze – which the Reagan administration, in a cheap echo of J. Edgar Hoover, intimated was supported and influenced by the KGB.

In 1985, repeating a controversial visit by Robert Kennedy, he staged a high-profile tour of South Africa. He defied the apartheid government's express wishes and spent a night in the Soweto home of Bishop Desmond Tutu. On his return, he led the way for a bill enacting economic sanctions against South Africa. Despite a veto by President Reagan, this passed in 1986 and it began to turn the tide against that government. He urged Reagan to sign an arms limitation bill with the Soviets and on a trip to Russia he helped secure the release of dissident mathematician and chess prodigy Anatoly Shcharansky.

Then came the riveting theater of the1987 Reagan nomination of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. At the beginning no one really thought the conservative Bork would be rejected. But Kennedy and his staff did two things in advance. First, they did their homework on the long paper trail left by Bork. Therefore they isolated and fanned the flames around his most controversial writings and decisions. Secondly, at the beginning of the process Kennedy made a sensational (in two senses) speech that was reminiscent of Harry Truman in 1948. (Click here.) Perhaps unfairly, he made Bork into the antithesis of every liberal policy enacted since the New Deal. The ferocity of his attack took the Reagan White House by surprise, and it made moderate Democrats hold their votes until after the questioning. In a high profile showdown with President Reagan, Bork was defeated.

After Reagan, he led the successful fight to block most of Newt Gingrich's Contract on America program. In 1989, with the unlikely partner of Sen. Orrin Hatch, he passed the Ryan White Care Act, which provided medical treatment for low-income people affected by AIDS. In 1990, with the help of Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, he passed a bill of which he was especially proud: the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. This provided, among other things, discrimination laws to help in the hiring of qualified disabled individuals and allowed access to the disabled into public and commercial buildings.

Another vote he thought was important was the one he cast in 2002 against the war in Iraq. He was one of only 23 senators to oppose that disastrous resolution. Again, his staff did their homework and he decided that the twin banners of "weapons of mass destruction" and "Hussein's aid to Al Qaeda" were mirages. He was right.

Finally, there was health care. If you can believe it, as early as the 1970's he began to push for universal health care. Realizing it was not possible to pass a huge, transformative bill at the time, he decided to proceed in stages. First he helped enact the COBRA Act of 1985,which extended employer-based health benefits after leaving a job. This was in turn extended and expanded by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Kennedy then expanded health insurance benefits to those with mental and emotional issues with the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. In 1997 he was a principal mover behind the epochal State Children's Health Insurance Program. This program used increased tobacco taxes to fund the largest expansion of taxpayer-funded health insurance for youths since Medicaid in the 1960's.

His dedication to this issue was reportedly behind his 2008 decision to publicly endorse Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama before the Super Tuesday primaries. There is little doubt that the now-famous American University event gave Obama a rocket boost in that race. One of the reasons President Obama is pushing a public option in his plan is because, "I promised Ted."

Considering the fact that I left a lot out, it is nothing less than a phenomenal record. Did any senator ever pass so much legislation that impacted the lives of so many people? But more specifically, and more pointedly: Was any senator ever involved in this much legislation whose aim was to help people who really needed the help and had no one to lobby for them? If any senator ever exemplified over the long haul the famous Democratic dictum that the aim of government was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable it was Ted Kennedy.

In addition to the above, he was a fine orator. He made two immortal speeches. The first was the quietly moving eulogy for his brother Robert in 1968 (which you can listen to in part here). The second was his powerful and reverberating "Dream Shall Never Die Speech" at the 1980 Democratic Convention (which you can listen to in part here). This was billed as a concession speech after his failed attempt to defeat President Carter in the primaries that year. But it really wasn't. Kennedy was never happy with either Carter or later, Bill Clinton. He thought they had moderated the true heritage of the Democratic Party. Which is why he made that splendid 1980 speech. It was really a liberal call to arms in the face of the impending southernization of his party. Because another reason Kennedy ran that year was because both he and his chief adviser Bob Shrum did not think Carter's modified approach could defeat Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, they ended up being correct.

It was a touching experience to watch the procession of over 50, 000 people march through the JFK library on Wednesday and Thursday just to make the sign of the cross in front of his coffin. Did you notice all the people in wheelchairs? That was because of his aforementioned 1990 bill to help them gain equal access and legal rights. They were there to say thanks to their champion.

I guess the main thing that made him special is that he was the one Kennedy brother who actually had a long political career. And by doing that he kind of summed up and represented what America would have been like if his brother Joe had not died during the war, or if John and Robert had not been assassinated. It would have been like all the good legislation he helped pass. Except 24/7. For the last 46 years. And without the ill-founded and wasteful wars i.e. Vietnam and Iraq.

But the thing no one wants to talk about is that after 1968, his was a losing battle. America today is not anything like it was in the sixties. It is a much worse country than when Ted joined the Senate in 1962. And that is mainly because, since 1968, when RFK and King were killed, Ted fought against Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. In other words, for 28 of those forty years, the GOP occupied the White House. And in the 12 years that the Democrats did, Teddy did not really like either President. Which, as I said, is why he ran against Carter in 1980, and could not stomach another triangulating Clinton in 2008.

Kennedy had human failings of course. He made a big mistake I think in not running against Nixon in 1972. I think that may have been as bad as Mario Cuomo not running in 1992. There is no doubt he would have won the nomination and I think he could have beaten Nixon. And that would have been a real game changer. I have never been able to figure out the full story about what happened in 1969 at the bridge at Chappaquiddick. And Kennedy clearly displayed deplorable judgment in the 1991 Palm Beach incident, which resulted in the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith. But I think it's important to understand that both controversial incidents were the results of a period of mourning over the premature deaths of first his brother Robert, and second his brother-in-law Stephen Smith.

But I am glad for what he did do, and what he tried to represent: The idea of American liberalism, as modernized by FDR. The concept that government can be a force for good in people's lives, that it can temper greed and avarice, that there is such a thing as a common good, and that it was the government's moral function to protect and help those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, and the shadow of life – that is the young, the old, and the crippled. Nobody did that as well or as persistently as he did for the last four decades. (Click here for him in his full fury fighting for a raise in the minimum wage.) When others in the party were talking up things like neoliberalism, or moderation in order to cater to the center, Ted understood that if you did that you moved the center to the right! Which is something he was not willing to do.

If he never became active in investigating the true circumstances of his brothers' deaths, I appreciate what he tried to do to keep their legacy alive. Unfortunately, there were not enough like him. Which makes him look good, and the shell of the Democratic Party we have today look bad.

With the passing of his sister Eunice earlier this year, there is only one child left from the family of Joseph and Rose Kennedy: the youngest sister Jean. And worse than that, there is no one really like him to carry on his heritage on Capitol Hill. No one even close.

Bye Ted, and thanks. For those of us who were around in 1962, you symbolized the last vestige of what America could and should have been.

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