Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died Tuesday night at the age of 77, lived an almost incomprehensible life. He was the youngest American Kennedy of that great generation; the last Kennedy brother, surviving his sister Eunice by just a week. With a remarkable penchant for self-renewal, he persevered through the brutal political assassination of two brothers, devastating illnesses and deaths of friends and siblings, a brush with mortality, a colossal lapse in judgment that ended in the death of another human being, a failed presidential bid, divorce -- and then, in later life, after marrying his wife Vicki in 1992, a tempering so profound that he became the conscience of the U.S. Senate and its most powerful, most respected member. A rich playboy in his prime, he became a champion of the people he called the most "humble members of society."
Kennedy will be remembered everywhere as the "liberal lion," and he remained polarizing to many on the right -- check your Twitter feed if you've got doubts -- but that appellation doesn't do justice to his final incarnation: so committed was he to principles that he was unafraid to hand political victories to Republican presidents on immigration and education. The later Kennedy was a liberal, but his legislative mien resisted definition. In a statement tonight, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah proudly listed eleven bills that he cosponsored with Kennedy.
It must be remember that Kennedy was a staunch and early critic of the war against Iraq when few of his colleagues would join him. "My vote against this misbegotten war was the best vote that I have cast since I was elected in 1962," he said in 2007. (It was for this reason he was unusually receptive to the charms of a new colleague, Barack Obama, who had also opposed the war.)
Kennedy was a regular and vocal opponent of the Bush Administration's way of balancing security and civil liberties. He opposed conservative judicial nominees and played a leading role in the defeat of Robert Bork. His stamp is on legislation as diverse as the founding catechisms of Medicare and the Americans with Disabilities Act, AmericaCorps, No Child Left Behind and the Ryan White AIDS Act, mental health parity, the State-Children's Health Insurance Program, raising the minimum wage, the government program that extends health insurance for the unemployed and more. He did more than any senator in modern memory to advance the cause of civil rights -- he was one of the few senators to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act --, but he called health care the "greatest cause" of his life.
In person, he was strikingly humble for a guy who had done so much and been through much. He was probably more beloved by his staffers than any other senator; he remembered birthdays, visited sick relatives, always was ready with gifts for children, and his annual holiday party each year, where he dressed up as Santa, was quite a sight to behold. Many of his staffers now serve President Obama, including Gregory Craig, who advised Kennedy for years on national security and civil rights.
Kennedy liked to quote Tennyson's Ulysses, and like the protagonist of the poem, Kennedy detested idleness and loved to move. He spoke often about the journeys of heroes -- Tennyson phrase -- "strong in will," striving, seeking, never yielding. His most famous turn of phrase flows from that sentiment. The final line of his speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention was an exhortation: For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Kennedy did not live to see the Senate pass universal health care reform, a goal to which he had devoted many of his later years. (His imprint lives on in Massachusetts, where it was his political brokering that brought Republicans and Democrats together to guarantee insurance for all.)
So will Democrats use Kennedy's death as a rallying cry to unite and pass health care reform? It is hard to tell whether his death -- inevitable as it has seemed -- is priced in to the politics of the debate so far. But Orrin Hatch, and other Republicans who worked with Kennedy, might be in a more expansive mood to compromise. Kennedy would probably encourage such speculation and not find it unseemly -- so important to him was the goal of getting something done, this year, under this president.
Some of my favorite Kennedy moments: his 1994 debate against Mitt Romney, calling Romney "multiple choice" on abortion. .... his 2008 Democratic National Convention speech.... his eulogy for his brother Bobby...on Iraq....his endorsement of Barack Obama. ... the dream shall never die....
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