Senator Edward M. Kennedy died last week. The outpouring of grief and remembrance has been overwhelming. Twenty thousand people filed through the JFK library in Boston to pay their respects. They waited in line for hours just to pass the flag-draped casket of the senior senator from Massachusetts. I remember that something similar occurred when Reagan died a few years ago; though, frankly, the public response to Reagan's passing, while huge, did not seem as spontaneous and heartfelt.
Compared to Kennedy.... well, I was going to say that, compared to Kennedy, Reagan was a flash in the pan but, certainly, that is not the case. He changed the system so much for the worse and to such a degree that we are still dealing with the mess and, it seems at least, that it will be almost impossible to overcome. If the damage can be undone, it will take years.
Kennedy and Reagan were a package. The former was the antithesis of the latter politically, though my understanding is that the two men became very friendly over the years. That is a concept that I just cannot understand. The two had diametrically opposing views of the role of government, and thousands of people were harmed by Reagan's nonsense. Yet Kennedy became his friend.
I'm not sure what that means. On one hand, it could mean that they respected each other as political giants, as ideological leaders of their parties, and as people who meant well and were each trying to do the right thing in their own ways. On the other hand, it could mean that to each of them -- both, men of privilege and wealth -- politics was a mere business like any other, separated (as they were) from those whom it most affected. It seems to me as though politicians of the stature of Kennedy and Reagan do, in fact, seem to be above the fray and above the law. Still, although Kennedy was a highly imperfect liberal, like the old negro spiritual says, "If we ever needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now."
Edward M. Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate for 46 years -- my entire life so far, plus one year. That's a remarkable thing to consider. For 46 years he was part of the national political process and he had so much influence over areas of public policy that matter to people's every day lives: Labor, education, health care, civil rights, among many others. Compare him to a guy like Senator Robert Byrd, who's served in the Senate even longer than Kennedy but really has done very little for folks outside of his own state of West Virginia. When Senator Byrd passes on eventually, I doubt very seriously whether his memorials will attract more than a few thousand attendees, if that. I suppose we'll have to just wait and see.
Kennedy was able both to bring home the bacon and be a national leader on issues that are important to average people. By all accounts he was a lovely, warm man not consumed by his own ego or status. He was generous with his time, his money, and his professional role. He and his extended family are thoroughly dedicated to public service and have an attitude about it that is very similar to my own. He was an old fashioned, unabashed liberal. I don't know if there are any left int he Senate. Barbara Mikulski? Perhaps. Al Franken? We'll see. Barbara Boxer? Certainly. A handful, perhaps. But NONE who will EVER be of Kennedy's stature or have a similar capacity to do the People's business so effectively.
So, it is a loss. Kennedy's family came to the U.S. from Ireland in the late 19th century. They weren't wealthy and, when they came here, they made lots of money very quickly in part as bootleggers during Prohibition. It was just incredible hard-nosed ambition, smarts, savvy, and hard work. The Kennedy children -- Ted's generation -- were able to take their father's ambition, his private vice, and turn it into public virtue. A familial tradition of public service, whether in government, non-profits, or journalism that is unmatched.
I hope the now-vacant Senate seat that had been occupied for over 50 years by a Kennedy (Ted's brother John had it before him) will be filled by another Kennedy. I just think it's important symbolically to have a Kennedy in the Senate who can carry the left wing torch for the next 20 or 30 years in a way that only a Kennedy can. I would like to be able to grow old and die with a liberal Kennedy still in the U.S. Senate, fighting the good fight.
Thank you, Senator Edward M. Kennedy.