Friday, August 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy: The End of an Era

Conservative Brother

(Liberal sister, I think we may actually agree on something else here.)

In centuries past, it was sometimes tradition among kings and generals who were victorious on the field of battle to pause and pay tribute to the bravery of their fallen opponents. Yes, it could have been perceived as a slight dig at their foe (a "we won and you didn't" moment), but as a whole it was a symbol of respect for the valor and accomplishments of their vanquished enemy. By no means am I trying to put myself on the level of a Caesar or a Napoleon as any sort of winner on the battlefield, nor have I come out victorious (that I'm aware of) in anything of any significance recently. But with the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy earlier this week, I do want to take a moment to show my respect for the accomplishments of the Lion of the Senate.

Kennedy was the sort of elected official who comes along only once or twice in a lifetime, one who was defined by his (in this case) liberal ideology and was used by the Republican Party as the centerpiece of many a campaign fundraising brochure - but who, at the end of the day, could (as highlighted in a great piece in the Washington Times) after a day of fighting his colleagues across the aisle join them for a beer. In fact, I'm beginning to think it was a pattern among Massachusetts Democrats of Irish descent to fight one minute and toast the next; Tip O'Neill was another great example of this sort of throwback politician, one who could lambaste Ronald Reagan for eight hours and in the ninth hour join him to raise a pint.

But Kennedy's career wasn't always defined by simply opposing Republicans. In the same Times story (which you can read in its entirety here), Joseph Curl laid out an impressive list of times where the Lion worked with colleagues from across the aisle to forge bipartisan deals on significant legislation: the Americans With Disabilities Act (with Bob Dole); the Mental Health Parity Act (with Pete Domenici); the Ryan White AIDS Act (with Orrin Hatch); and the No Child Left Behind Act (with President George W. Bush), among many others. And the significant accomplishment of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s was a watershed moment not just for Kennedy and his colleagues, but for the entire nation.

His passing comes at a time where many would say his voice and his leadership were definitely needed, with health care reform legislation again at the fore. I agree something needs to be done, although I'm not convinced that the current bill is the right way to go. (Side bar: Republicans cannot be called the party of no necessarily with this bill, as they don't have the majority anywhere; could the Democrats find some unity, they could pass it on their own. Additionally, those who say the Republicans aren't offering any suggestions of their own are conveniently ignoring the reform legislation they have introduced in recent years - and which has been ignored by the current leadership because it doesn't go far enough. The way things with the Democrats are imploding at this point, their bill won't go far enough for most, either. End side bar.) However, following his brush with death in the plane crash of the 1960s, Kennedy made health care reform his major cause. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, there is no disputing the fact that his voice was - and will be - missed throughout this debate, and as someone who could bring folks together from opposite sides of the room and make agreements stick his leadership may have made the difference.

But I won't use my half of this post to debate legislation or who is right and who is wrong in the current political environment. I also won't drag up all of the problems Kennedy had in his life and the tragedy that he experienced; everyone has problems, everyone has screwed up, and everyone at some point will experience tragedy. What I will do is say "thank you" for representing a bygone age of politics, one in which disputes were left at the door and folks at the end of the day could still be civil with each other. "Thank you" for recognizing that a party didn't have to do everything alone, and that there was a time and a place for compromise and cooperation. Sadly, many of today's politicians seem to have forgotten what they can do in order to focus on what they think they should be doing.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008 and appeared at American University the day he was officially endorsed by Ted Kennedy, I was in attendance for no other reason than to witness a historic moment (and to get a sample of the Obama hype I had been hearing about). Like Obama or not, it was an important day - and Kennedy was in his element; he was commanding, he was uplifting (for the Obama supporters), and he definitely did his part to rally the troops. It was the only time in my life I saw Kennedy in person (even with all of the time I worked on Capitol Hill), and after news of his passing it has taken on an entirely new significance.

His family, his friends, and his constituents are mourning the loss of a father, uncle, grandfather, supporter, and advocate. More than the man, though, I am mourning the era that has passed away with his death.

Liberal Sister

Three weeks ago, my mother came to visit me and I showed her the brilliant HBO documentary "Teddy: In His Own Words". I had seen it maybe 4 times at that point, but I wanted to share the experience with my mother, who had lived through the majority of the events covered in the film. About thirty minutes into the film, my mother was in tears, and she continued to choke up until the documentary was over. I realized that, for the two of us, the film meant two different things. For me, it was a deeper education of a man who had long stood in the shadow of his brothers. For my mother, it was a retrospective of the beauty and tragedy of America's most famous family, and a reminder not only of all that could have been, but what was.

I grew up with an understanding of Jack and Bobby - of what they had done and who they were, of what they meant to my mother and to the nation - a knowledge of where my parents were when they learned of Jack's and Bobby's deaths, and a sense of pride in knowing that my father drove to Washington, D.C. to join the long line of mourners who filed solemnly past the President's coffin. In all the years, however, I had never heard much mention of Teddy from my parents. As I got older, however, and became more interested in politics and all things Liberal, I gravitated toward Teddy, mesmerized by his words, captivated by his passion, and in awe of his dedication to fulfilling a promise to America that his brothers had made.

For me, Teddy Kennedy is my one link to the days of Camelot, and as romanticized and dreamy as those days were to so many, I have always been more interested in what Teddy himself had done in his lifetime, as I was directly impacted by his work. My brother mentioned some of his bipartisan legislation earlier, but I will attempt to sum up the man by saying this: in the last 40 years, no one has done more for the causes of civil rights, women's rights, the rights of the disabled, and the rights of the poor and disenfranchised than Ted Kennedy. He fought for more than thirty years for Health Care Reform, was instrumental in lowering the voting age to 18, had great concern about the care given to veterans, and he worked to provide aid to refugees from war-torn countries. As so many have stated since his passing, he was born into a life of privilege, but dedicated his life to being a champion of the voiceless, the less fortunate, and the forgotten.

It is nearly impossible to put into words the legacy of this great man, and I am certainly incapable of doing so in this forum. I will only say that, whether or not one agreed with his ideology, Ted Kennedy is a man to whom respect must be shown. Too often his failings and self-admitted regrets were used as a rallying cry for his detractors, but his is a life that must be examined in its entirety. Like him or not, history will undoubtedly remember him as the greatest Senator of the 20th century and as a man who devoted his entire life to serving the country he loved so well.

I think all Americans can take pride in that.

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