Senator Ted Kennedy and the Dream

Today I stood out on Court Street in Boston and watched the motorcade with Senator Kennedy’s hearse pass by.  It was an extraordinary moment as first the hearse and then cars with family members passed by to the waves and applause of those of us lining the street.

This from the editorial in the Nation

Senator Edward Kennedy, who died on August 25 after a battle with brain cancer, was one of the giants of American political life. For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance civil rights, healthcare and the economic well-being of Americans bore his name and resulted from his tenacious, passionate and effective efforts. His commitment to public service was driven by an exuberant engagement with politics, a deep sense of compassion and a belief that every American is entitled to dignity as well as equal justice under the law.

Yes, I know he was a flawed man.  A womanizer and partier well past the age when one should give up such activities.  And there was always Chappaquiddick.  But in some way those flaws made him more of a common man. 

I worked for his short lived Presidential campaign in 1980 and will never forget his speech to that convention.  Again from the Nation.

That was not to be. So on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in New York City that summer, Kennedy addressed the delegates. His speech, the most inspired in a career of inspired oratory, was not a concession. It was a call to arms. Kennedy’s was a plea to the party to stay true to “the cause of the common man and the common woman”–a call that, unfortunately, would not be heeded by too many Democratic nominees who would campaign for lesser purposes. “I’m asking you–I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice,” Kennedy proclaimed, as he outlined the jobs-with-justice pledges he and his delegates had nailed to the party platform. “Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land. We dare not forsake that tradition. We cannot let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history.”

Kennedy ended that speech by declaring, “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. 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.”

The question in my mind is who will replace him as the leader of what has often been called the liberal wing of the Democratic party.  Senator Kennedy was really “The Fighting Liberal.”

Kennedy’s early support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, eloquently outlined in his final address to the Democratic convention in Denver last year, was never naïve. Kennedy knew the younger man would stumble and struggle, make mistakes, disappoint the faithful. Kennedy himself had done all these things. But he believed that Obama was made of stronger stuff, the same mettle that led a defeated presidential candidate to deliver a fight-on address to the 1980 Democratic National Convention and then to do just that across the next three decades. It is this understanding that “the cause endures” that made Kennedy so inspiring, and so essential to the political and policy struggles of his time. If he was right to place his faith in Obama, as we now must hope more fervently than ever, the loss of the liberal lion will be a cause of sadness but not a setback. And we will know that on that hot summer night in New York City twenty-nine years ago, Ted Kennedy was right: “the dream shall never die.”

I end with some words from the Boston Globe’s Derrick Jackson.

As one African-American woman, a former educator, said to me yesterday , “I’m not so sure that the other Kennedy brothers ‘got it’ right here’’ – she pointed to her heart – “about civil rights. Ted Kennedy did. I cannot think of a single vote on a single issue that I disagreed with.’’

Nor can I, come to think of it. Like no other senator, Kennedy sought to weave the legal gains of the 1960s into the working fabric of American life. He helped make a reality not just of civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans, but also of rights for women, the poor, people with disabilities, and people who need health care.

He was an overdog for the underdog. Without him, how much more would the Democrats have teetered in the face of Ronald Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign of the 1980s? Without him, how much more of an identity crisis would the party have had when President Clinton steered the Democrats to the center, finishing off Reagan’s anti-welfare work?

His work could not close the  still-growing chasm between rich and poor, between CEOs and grunt workers. But he was a leader in recognizing the gaps. In law after law, he converted the heat from the torch of the 1960s into a warmer embrace by America of all its people.

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