by Robert Wilkinson
Despite his many flaws which are easily attacked by people of lesser stature and narrow views, Senator Edward Kennedy was one of the best leaders in American history.
While for many years his life was a mess, and I certainly didn't agree with how he lived his early life, I believe he ultimately transcended his party boy label to become a truly great American statesman. He did incalculable good for our country, and remained a vocal conscience for all we could be, both as a nation and as individuals. In this sense he was truly like his martyred brothers. For those who do not remember, from the NY Times:
"Mr. Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor.... He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, pushed for peace in Northern Ireland, won a ban on arms sales to the dictatorship in Chile and denounced the Vietnam War. In 2002, he voted against authorizing the Iraq war; later, he called that opposition "the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the United States Senate."
He led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation. He was deeply involved in renewals of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing law of 1968. He helped establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He built federal support for community health care centers, increased cancer research financing and helped create the Meals on Wheels program. He was a major proponent of a health and nutrition program for pregnant women and infants.
Also from the Times article, a very interesting insight: "As James Sterling Young, the director of a Kennedy Oral History Project at the University of Virginia, put it: 'Most people grow up and go into politics. The Kennedys go into politics and then they grow up.'"
He also championed teachers' unions, women's rights, the Freedom of Information Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. For 40 years he fought for universal health coverage, and in that period he also vastly expanded the network of neighborhood clinics, helped create COBRA (portable insurance) as well as Medicare laws dealing with prescriptions and sponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act.
While no politician is completely clean (most are thoroughly corrupt) and I didn't agree with all that he said, Edward Kennedy was fearless in standing for something better in the face of the reactionary factions who profit from tearing this country apart for selfish motives and authoritarian obsessions. I suppose we can all take some small comfort that he wasn't assassinated by those who took out his brothers and nephew.
He was the ultimate survivor, with all the desperation and baggage that involves. The weight on his shoulders was of a magnitude that very few ever experience. When evaluating his strengths and flaws, that must certainly factor in.
For those of us who remember the assassination of a dream in 1968, imagine this moment, after his brother Robert was shot (from the Times article):
Frank Mankiewicz, Robert’s press secretary, saw Edward "leaning over the sink with the most awful expression on his face."
"Much more than agony, more than anguish — I don’t know if there’s a word for it," Mr. Mankiewicz said, recalling the encounter in "Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography," by Adam Clymer (William Morrow, 1999).
I was part of a generation that was profoundly impacted by the Kennedy tragedies and leadership. As a tribute to the spirit of a man who did the best he could with the blessings and demons that were a part of his life, I leave you with something he said a long time ago that still burns as a beacon for us all:
"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."
RIP, Teddy. 3:58 am, Feb 22, 1932 to ("shortly before midnight") August 25, 2009 is not a bad run for a Kennedy.
© Copyright 2009 Robert Wilkinson
(Since hope is rarer than criticism. I will ask that regardless of your political views, please do not leave comments trashing him or what he stood for. That's not appropriate to the spirit of this moment of passing.)