RIP Edward Kennedy

Ken AshfordHealth Care, In PassingLeave a Comment

In the 1930's, Joe Kennedy knew one of his sons would be President.  That future president, everyone assumed, was to be smart, handsome, and charismatic Joe Kennedy, Jr.  But Joe Jr. was shot down and killed in WWII.  All eyes fell to John.

Joe Kennedy lived long enough to see JFK become President, as well as the younger brother Bobby become Attorney General.

But then, in the shadows, there was another Kennedy son, comprised it seemed of leftover parts from his older brothers.  As Kennedys go, nobody expected much from Teddy.  Sure, he got into Harvard, but, being a Kennedy, one has to try awfully hard not to get into Harvard.  But once there, he didn't excel.  He didn't seem to have the Kennedyesque quality.  He was, in essence, George Bush — living off of the family name.

So when he decided to run for public office in 1962 — the U.S. Senate — his older brothers urged him against it.  There stood a real chance that the young Teddy, age 30, might lose.  Worse still, he might win and be an embarrassment.

Well, he ran and he won… and sure, he won only because of his last name.

Then something happened.  He got in a plane crash and was hospitalized for several months.  He took that time to bone up on the issues and become knowledgeable.  Being in the hospital, one of his pet issues became health care.

Granted, he was still a Kennedy, with all the Kennedy personal failings.  Womanizing, drinking, etc.  This all came to a head in 1969 when he drove off a bridge on Chappaquidick, a small island off Martha's Vineyard.  The death of his car companion, a young campaign worker named Mary Jo Kepechne, was controversial enough, but the fact that Ted waited several hours to report the incident (having hurriedly gone instead to seek counsel with political advisers first) was what alienated many voters against him.

After Chappaquiddick, many said that Teddy could never be president.  By this time (the late 60's), he was the last Kennedy of his generation — both JFK and Bobby had been assassinated.  In 1980, Teddy proved the nay-sayers right; he challenged a very unpopular incumbent President Jimmy Carter, and failed to even get the Democratic nomination.

But then a funny thing happened.  Senator Edward Kennedy found himself in a unique position: a man could go no higher politically, but who was virtually guaranteed a lifelong post in the Senate (because the Massachusetts people were never going to vote him out).  This freed him up from lobbyists and others on whom other politicians rely for campaign donations.  And it allowed him to make a strong commitment to public service.

He relished it, and went after it with gusto.

That, of course, is Ted Kennedy's strongest legacy — his unflinching support for social justice, be it in the form of civil rights, education or health care.  Unrestrained by the politics of getting re-elected and free from catering to special interests, he did what most of us would want our elected leaders to do:  he did good.

Anyone who grew up with 120 miles of Boston during the past 4 decades, as I did, knows that you can't swing a dead cat without knocking over a couple of Kennedys.  I don't know how many times I've seen him speak — as a visiting lecturer, at some commencement, in a campaign for someone (it probably helped that I went to college with his daughter).  I even talked to him briefly once in a Copley Plaza restaurant (he was very gregarious).

He may not have had a stellar personal life, but when it comes to public service, he is the role model.  Like his brothers, he was born into privilege.  Like his brothers, he believed that being graced with such privilege obligates one to give back to the community, a moral tenet that seems to be lost on the Wall Street CEOs of today.

Sadly, he was never to realize his lifelong dream of universal, affordable health care, and his death yesterday from brain cancer, while expected, comes at an ironic time.  I don't think it will change the scope of the health care debate, but someday, Kennedy's dream will come true.  It may be another generation, but when it happens, I am confident that he will be recognized.  As Kennedy himself said exactly one year ago today:

“This is the cause of my life. New hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American – north, south, east, west, young, old – will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”

I've always had a soft spot for Ted Kennedy as a person.  I cannot imagine what it must have been like all those years to be the Kennedy king, singlehandedly carrying the mantle of the family name whose members included JFK and Bobby Kennedy.  I mean, that's a pretty steep curve that he's been graded on.  As Time's Joe Klein writes:

He was scared catatonic, of course. Scared of death, obviously. There was no reason to believe, in a nation of nutballs, that he would be allowed to continue, unshot. But he was frightened of more profound things as well — overwhelmed by his own humanity in the face of his brothers' immortality, convinced that he'd never measure up, that Joe and Jack and Bobby had been the best of the Kennedys.

You can actually feel that weight being thrown on Ted's back here, as he speaks one of the best eulogies I've ever heard, on the occasion of his brother Bobby's funeral:

It was probably worse after JFK, Jr. died.  It seemed clear that Ted Kennedy was the end of the dynasty, and for the first time in my entire life, I now live in a world that lacks a Kennedy on the national political scene.  Rather strange.

The last of Joe and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Ted died 14 days after his sister Eunice.

For those who despair that Kennedy's absence might make the country an unhealthier place, remember this:

“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.”  —Senator Edward M. Kennedy.  1932-2009.

UPDATE:  The reaction from the right blogosphere is entirely predictable.  Much call for respect and all that, but the unwashed masses (the commenters) can't seem to resist the "burn in Hell, Teddy" rhetoric.

Another meme is emerging from the right — they think it is inappropriate that Kennedy's funeral be some sort of tribute to the things that Kennedy cared about — like social justice, civil rights, and health care.  "It's about the man", they say, harkening to the Paul Wellstone funeral many years ago.

Such concern trolling is both funny and upsetting.  Of course it is about the man, but you can't separate the man from the things that the man stood for, fought for, and believed in his entire life.

UPDATE:  Kennedy debates Nixon in 1971 about health care.  Cronkite, who also passed recently, does the introduction…