Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Ted Kennedy

By Marc Korman.

Last February, Ted Kennedy came to the Montgomery County Democratic Party annual brunch to speak on behalf of then-Democratic presidential primary candidate Barack Obama. He began by bellowing “Are You Glad to See Me?” which had become a familiar greeting for him at public appearances over the decades. And although the room that day was split between Clinton and Obama supporters, we were all glad to see him. It was just before his cancer diagnosis and sad, public decline. I am grateful I had the chance to see him speak in person and laugh to myself when I remember hanging around him outside the brunch, not shaking his hand or trying to get a picture with him, but just enjoying his presence.

As important as Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy are to history and the Democratic Party, Ted Kennedy is the Kennedy brother that means the most to me. He is the one I saw in action, fighting for the issues I cared about and caring for an important institution that needs to function well for our country to prosper.

I remember as a young kid being mystified that a Kennedy could still be in the Senate, since the JFK and RFK days seemed like ancient history to me. In 2002, after the disheartening midterms, my dad sent me Ted Kennedy’s 1980 concession speech to bolster my spirits. Kennedy’s tireless work for John Kerry, my favored candidate, during the 2004 primaries was a thrill to watch, as the old lion worked town halls in Iowa to help push Kerry over the top there. I recall just after the 2004 election, watching Kennedy on Meet The Press lead the charge for the Democrats in opposing President Bush’s actions in Iraq. In my view, the lion was reasserting himself as the party leader in the aftermath of the 2004 defeat. And I remember my shock when my mother decided to vote for Obama in the primary, partly because Kennedy gave him the stamp of approval.

While those political memories give me a thrill, what makes me saddest is thinking about his legislative accomplishments. Even before giving up his presidential ambitions, Kennedy championed voting rights, civil rights, and immigration reform. Following his failed 1980 campaign, Kennedy really fulfilled his legislative potential by becoming the leader in Congress on these issues, as well as healthcare, welfare, the judiciary, education, and more. It seems like for the past fifteen years, Congress could not tackle a major legislative issue without Ted Kennedy coming to the table, working, and compromising. He had a unique ability to keep faith with liberals and Democrats, while still moving the ball forward to get something done with Republicans.

In fact, that is what has struck me most about Ted Kennedy. When Republicans want to raise money, they liked to send direct mailings scaring their supporters with talk of Kennedy this and Kennedy that. But the truth is, the Kennedy boogeyman the Republicans liked to invoke would stand next to any Republican President or legislator and cut a deal in the name of good policy reform, even if it was incremental. Unfortunately, the figures on the other side of the aisle seem incapable of doing that. Democrats tar and feather our political opponents too, sending out emails or mailings warning of Tom Delay or Newt Gingrich policies and politics. But the difference is Ted Kennedy was vilified, but would continue to bring people together and compromise. The Republican Party’s Delays and Gingriches have always been content to let nothing happen and would never constructively work across party lines on major issues. Ted Kennedy stood next to President George W. Bush on at least three major occasions and gave at least his initial stamp of approval to ambitious reforms (No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and immigration reform). As it turned out, some of these were mistakes, but Kennedy kept trying because he was sent to Washington to be a Senator.

The life and death of Ted Kennedy is especially disharmonious with current events. The tone of the healthcare debate, with elected officials being shouted down and outrageous accusations from all sides, is completely disconnected from the way Ted Kennedy legislated. I do not expect Kennedy’s death to get healthcare passed or change our politics, but I hope as people scream their lies about death panels and obstruct needed reform, at least some of them think about how their actions can be contrasted with Ted Kennedy’s style of doing business.

Ted Kennedy was not a perfect man. It would be foolish to pretend he was a saint and that Chappaquiddick was not an awful event. But I hope when he is remembered people look at the totality of his life, his accomplishments, and what he stood for. I will miss him personally as a political hero, but I think we will all realize in the time ahead that we all miss him as a Senator.