A Man for His Time
The Senate without Ted Kennedy will never be the same.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Kennedy playing a prominent role on the national political stage. From when I was a little kid and my parents wore JFK buttons, to my pre-teen horror at Robert Kennedy’s assassination to Ted Kennedy’s ashen-faced news conference after the Chappaquiddick tragedy, his half-hearted and ultimately abortive run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, and his acceptance, finally, of his role as an elder statesman.
So when I heard that Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me; I couldn’t breathe. I was driving in downtown Monterey and pulled over to hear every detail on the radio.
Kennedy, 76, is mortal, of course. But he has seemed immortal for so long, a larger-than-life powerful political figure in the mold of Tip O’Neill and Jess Unruh, a fierce and dependable guidepost of a liberal, a fighter for the little guy when few others would dare be called to battle. It is almost unimaginable to think about the U.S. Senate, where he has served since 1962, without him.
Even in the dark times for Democrats of the Reagan era and of Bush I and Bush II, Ted Kennedy has been there, fighting the good fight on education, health-care reform and the Iraq war– at times it seemed he was the sole voice for a progressive agenda of social responsibility and humanitarianism.
IT MUST BE LIBERATING TO BE A POWERFUL SENATOR WITH NO EYE ON THE WHITE HOUSE.
It must be liberating to be a powerful senator who no longer has his eye on the White House, which certainly has enabled Kennedy to comfortably reach across the political aisle and to work with Republican colleagues, like John McCain on immigration reform.
It is hard not to wonder what his eventual departure from the Senate will mean. A Senate without Kennedy articulating progressive values, challenging the GOP and advocating for the people who have little or no voice will be a very different place. Not to mention the loss of institutional knowledge and political capital, and a long memory about where the bodies are buried– stuff that takes years to build.
While presidential candidates McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in the national eye, none has the experience or legislative legacy of Ted Kennedy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada runs a tight ship, but he doesn’t have the gravitas, style or charisma to excite the masses and motivate Democrats and Republicans. A dark horse could emerge, but who?
In Monterey County, Kennedy’s name does not come up much in day-to-day Democratic politics, according to Pete Hill, vice president of the county Democratic Club. But his power is known and his accomplishments are undeniably felt.
There is much to admire about Kennedy from the national viewpoint, Hill said.
“Ted Kennedy over the years, behind the scenes, has worked for the average guy,” Hill said. “He has been a very effective legislator. With all the tragedies, he still comes through as a good, decent person. There’s not a lot of decency in this world. He is still working for the common man. A lot of his tragedies, some are self-made, and he still more or less has kept going.”
To Vinz Koller, chairman of the Monterey County Democratic Party, it seems a bit strange to talk about Kennedy in the past tense, when he could be around for a while yet.
Still, Koller said, the brain tumor news did bring home to him that Kennedy won’t be here forever.
“I heard someone comment that Kennedy has had more impact on more people in this county than [Franklin] Roosevelt,” Koller said. “His welfare legislation, his workforce investment act legislation, Healthy Start– much of it to alleviate poverty. Some of those things that are not sexy, but they have a huge impact on the most people.”
Indeed, Time magazine in 2006 noted that Kennedy had “amassed a titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country,’’ and that by the late 1990s, he had “become such a prodigious cross-aisle dealer that Republican leaders began pressuring party colleagues not to sponsor bills with him.”
I know Ted Kennedy says he’ll continue to fight the good fight in the Senate and for his life. He even competed Monday in a sailing race between Nantucket Island and Cape Cod. But perhaps deep down he knew his days were numbered when he endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was like he was passing the torch, an uncanny foreshadowing of what was to come. He even had Obama fill in for him on Sunday to deliver the commencement address at Wesleyan University.
Maybe Obama does represent the next wave. But that possibility is bittersweet at best. There is only one Ted Kennedy, and he is the end of a storied line. He has been a politician for his era.