Edward “Ted” Kennedy was the only son of four to survive beyond the age of 50; his brothers Joe, John and Robert each died violently. While his family is often described as America’s version of royalty, and his brother’s tenure as president was called Camelot, Ted Kennedy’s life included moments of great moral failure, personal humiliation and professional disappointment. Now that the substance of his life can be weighed, the legacy of his legislative achievement surpasses the dark moments.
Mr. Kennedy, who served nearly 50 years as a senator, was a consistent and effective champion of those “on the wrong side of power,” as former Sen. Bob Kerrey put it Wednesday. President Obama called him the greatest senator of our time; by the measure of his legislative success — passage of more than 300 bills, most of them substantive — that is not hyperbole. Though he inherited the power and privilege that came with great family wealth (an escape from the consequences of a car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne, for example), and the shortcut to the national stage that came with his name, Sen. Kennedy was genuinely passionate about helping those who the economy and government did not bless.
Sen. Kennedy, who died early Wednesday, focused on health care, civil rights, immigration and education reform. His hand helped shape the alphabet soup that is now the bulwark of protection for those without wealth and power: the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act), OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), CHIP (the Childrens Health Insurance program) and COBRA (the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act that provides portability for employer-based health insurance). He also helped pass Medicare, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and helped crafted Title IX, which created parity between the genders in public athletic programs and the constitutional amendment that gave 18-year-olds the vote.
In short, there are few Americans who do not enjoy benefits he worked to create.
Political opponents remembered Wednesday how they portrayed him as the embodiment of extreme liberalism. A letter seeking donations to a Republican campaign often included language like, “If I don’t get elected, Ted Kennedy and his friends will have their way in the Senate.” The tactic worked.
But as effective a bogeyman as he was for Republicans, his GOP colleagues recounted how they genuinely like him, and how he was a good friend. When Republican Sen. Gordon Smith’s son committed suicide, it was Sen. Kennedy who was the first from the Senate to call him. Dozens of similar stories tumbled out on news Web sites and cable TV networks on Wednesday.
This genuine affection for colleagues is in part what made Sen. Kennedy such an effective legislator; that and his keen intellect, the empathy he learned through witnessing personal tragedy and loss and a firm belief that government can make life better for people. Over the last several months, Democrats have lamented his absence as they work to pass health care reform, an issue about which Sen. Kennedy was most passionate.
The question that many have is whether another great statesman will rise in the Senate to broker deals on issues that matter most to Americans.