In this past week, I’ve been feeling very sad at the death of Ted Kennedy. I share a sense of loss that many people feel over the death of this man who has been such a great progressive Senator for all these decades. But it’s more than that. For many, it’s not just Ted’s death, but the death of a generation of Kennedys that has played such a dominate role in our nations politics for such a long period of time. I am a liberal because of my admiration of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys. In these past few days I’ve been reading a lot of blogs, post, and newspaper articles from writers saying how much Ted Kennedy has influenced their lives. It’ll be a while before we see his likes again.
I first heard of Ted Kennedy when I was in Junior High School, when he ran in the Democratic primaries against Jimmy Carter. Many people around me were very critical of Ted because of Chappaquidick and it seemed like Ted had the weight of the world on his shoulders whenever I saw him on t.v. I just felt sorry for him. During those years, I admired John and Bobby more than Ted, as he seemed to shrink in comparison to his two brothers. As the years went on, however, and Ted’s legislative achievements became better known to me, my estimation of Kennedy began to really grow.
I looked up the internet and found many legislative accomplishments. He authored over 2,500 bills, of which 500 became law. During the 1960s, Kennedy fought for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and was the floor manager for the 1965 Immigration Act. In 1971 he passed legislation quadrupling cancer funds. In 1975 Kennedy sponsored the 1975 Education for All Handicapped People Act, and in 1980 he introduced the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, whiched protected the constitutional rights of the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the incarcerated. In 1990, Kennedy cosponsored with Orrin Hatch the Ryan White CARE Act, which speeded funds for cities most hit by the AIDs epidemic. In 1990 Kennedy wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibiting disability discrimination. In 1993 Kennedy co-authored the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring businesses to provide unpaid leave for emergencies or births. In 1996 he cosponsored with Kansas Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, which allowed employees to keep health insurance for a time after losing job. Kennedy helped President George Bush with the No Child Left Behind Act.
A wonderful Public Radio International internet post chronicles Kennedy’s fight to end apartheid rule in South Africa. I remember this very well during the 1980s, and Kennedy’s fight influenced me to start seeing him in a different light. Kennedy introduced legislation to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. The Anti-Apartheid Act became law in 1986 after Congress overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan. The Public Radio International post quoted Randal Robinson, a prominent anti-apartheid activist and now a professor of human rights law at the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University:
“What we did that resulted in the overriding of Ronald Reagan’s veto — the first time in the 20th century that a foreign policy veto of a sitting president had been overridden by the Senate — that could not have happened without Ted Kennedy. He was not just a major force, he was the essential, he was the indispensable force.”
This may just seem like a list of bills, but it’s important that we see just what Kennedy did for the elderly, the poor, the working class, the mentally ill and the marginalize of this nation. Kennedy was a complex man with many flaws, but he was also one of the greatest progressive senators of our time. Detractors are right to bring up the tragedy of Chappaquidick, but I feel that this horrible tragedy must be put in the context of his entire life. I struggled a lot with trying to understand Kennedy’s personal failings and his accomplishments. As I’ve lived my life and struggled with my own failures and mistakes, it has made me empathize more with Ted Kennedy’s failures and the way in which he has had to struggle with it in the public eye. Melissa McEwan wrote a tough but fair post on the struggles she’s had in reconciling the man in the center of the Chappaquidick and William Kennedy Smith scandals and the man who passed so much legislation that benefitted so many average Americans. McEwan’s post encapsulates the mixed feelings I’ve had about this man during most of my life.
Teddy, as he was known, was privileged, in every sense of the word. And he made liberal use of his privilege, in ways I admired and ways I did not. The terrible bargain we all seem to have made with Teddy is that we overlooked the occasions when he invoked his privilege as a powerful and well-connected man from a prominent family, because of the career he made using that same privilege to try to make the world a better place for the people dealt a different lot.
….I can also not forget the myriad ways in which Teddy used his limitless privilege for the betterment of others, as Mustang Bobby so eloquently detailed. He quite genuinely cared about the poor, the sick, the needy, the dispossessed. He was an authentic progressive, who could acknowledge his own privilege and could stand in front of the Senate and talk about the privilege he had that people of color, LGBTQIs, and women lack. He was a great goddamn Senator—and would that the entire Senate, or even just the Democratic Caucus, was filled with people who were as passionate and progressive as he was.
One of the things I most admire about Ted Kennedy is his ability to make friends with those people he disagreed with. He was able to cross the aisle and collaborate with Republicans to pass bills. I end this post with a personal testimony from Orrin Hatch, conservative Republican from Utah and one of Ted Kennedy’s closest friends.