When Sen. Ted Kennedy died at 77 of brain cancer Tuesday night in Hyannis Port, Mass. it came as no surprise. When he was stricken in 2008, his doctors told family he might survive only until early this year. Yet, characteristically, he remained engaged in his legislative work — if, necessarily, from a distance through other Senators and his incredibly loyal staff — until the very end.
His career spanned the period from his brother John F. Kennedy's Presidency to the Great Society breakthroughs of 1965 to present day. Only West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, himself in ill health and absent from the Senate, has had a comparable run.
Kennedy properly was characterized as a "lion" for his fearless, constant effort on behalf of causes in which he believed. Yet, in doing his job, he was a throwback to the Old Senate that existed when he entered it.
Conservative groups often used him as a poster boy for what they regarded as liberal, big-government approaches to policy. But his Senate Republican colleagues never did. They respected and even revered him for his willingness to work across partisan and ideological lines and, most of all, for doing his homework and putting petty considerations aside in seeking solutions for the general public good. Even while opposing President George W. Bush on national security and some domestic issues, he worked with him to pass a Medicare drug benefit and No Child Left Behind legislation.
His absence creates a huge hole in the capital. It will be felt, in particular, as President Obama and congressional Democrats attempt to frame and pass health legislation. They appear, now, headed for a Democrats-only effort to do so. Kennedy would never have taken such a path. His instinct was to begin a legislative effort by enlisting bipartisan support at the outset — and only after hearings and offstage discussions had paved the way for such an approach.
Kennedy was the youngest child of the remarkable Kennedy family. If you think birth order makes no difference, think again. He could at times show signs of being the "baby" but he also strove mightily to achieve and to meet expectations. Over the past 30 years he conscientiously served as the head of a large Kennedy extended family often struck by illness and tragedy. In the 1990s, while he was approaching the crest of his Senate career, Democrats found themselves in minority status in the Congress. Yet he continued dawn-to-dark work days while knowing that, in the end, the other party was in the majority and controlled final outomes. Let's put it simply: He worked hard and never gave up.
Now, for some personal reminiscences. In 1960 I was living in Boston with my wife and baby. I had been a supporter of the more liberal Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Presidential nomination but enthusiastically did volunteer work in his Boston headquarters for John F. Kennedy in his campaign against Richard Nixon. Kennedy's youngest brother, Ted, was just starting his career as an assistant district attorney. I signed up for his forming U.S. Senate campaign. But, in late 1961, I was recalled during the Berlin Crisis to military duty at the Pentagon and never got back to Boston.
Down the road I became then-Vice President Humphrey's assistant in the Johnson White House. Humphrey, President Kennedy, and Attorney General (and later Senator) Robert Kennedy had genuine mutual friendships. But Humphrey took special interest in Ted Kennedy when he came to the Senate. He had first known him when, as a University of Virginia law student, Kennedy invited Humphrey to address a public forum there and acted as his host on campus. When Ted Kennedy's name was mentioned, Humphrey would immediately smile. They were soul brothers in their idealism and commitment to the early 1960s justice agenda.
Humphrey, as Lyndon Johnson's Vice President, would in 1968 become entrapped in the Vietnam War issue. His friends Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy became his challengers for the Democratic Presidential nomination. But, in the fall campaign, Ted Kennedy worked hard for Humphrey. Humphrey's first post-nomination campaign rally was in Boston. He was subjected to fierce and often vicious heckling. But Ted Kennedy stood at his side throughout. Afterward, he said he wanted to see Humphrey briefly on his campaign plane before it departed Boston. He put his arms around Humphrey and told him to count on him. After Humphrey's September speech, breaking with Johnson on the war, Ted Kennedy was the first Democratic leader to make a strong endorsing statement.
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