Dan Balz's Take
A Legislator Like No Other
By Dan Balz
For a generation or more, Edward M. Kennedy held two roles in the political life of the country. He was the vibrant symbol of American liberalism in an era of conservative ascendance. He was also the vigorous embodiment of a pragmatic legislator in an era of deep partisan divisions and polarization in the nation's politics.
Kennedy's death from brain cancer late Tuesday brought an end to one of the most storied political careers of the last half century. That he died at a moment when one of the greatest causes of his lifetime -- enactment of universal health insurance -- faces major obstacles on Capitol Hill only underscored the void his absence has left.
Kennedy was the last of the Kennedy brothers, the patriarch of one of the most glamorous, influential and star-crossed families in American political history. He was father, uncle, sibling and leader in carrying on the traditions established by his two slain brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. He knew tragedy and triumph, disappointment and elation, scandal and ultimately enormous success.
He sought the presidency but never achieved the ultimate prize in politics that once seemed part of his destiny. But with his defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries, Kennedy seemed liberated from the burden of having to follow his brothers in a quest for the White House and went on to become what President Obama called early Wednesday the "greatest senator of our time."
Obama owes his presidency in part to the endorsement he received from Kennedy at a critical moment in the Democratic nomination battle in 2008. Kennedy urged Obama to run in 2008, not to wait, as others were counseling. Kennedy knew that Obama's hopes of becoming president would diminish the longer he stayed in the Senate.
Kennedy saw in Obama something of his own brothers, and his eventual endorsement-- which ruptured his relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton -- represented a passing of the Kennedy mantle to the young senator from Illinois. In return, Obama agreed to make enactment of health care legislation one of his first priorities as president.
Kennedy was steadfast in his political ideology. He was the champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the weak and dispossessed. He battled for the causes of civil rights and women's rights and health care and education spending. He believed in the power of government, whether it was in or out of fashion, as a force for change and for good. He voted against the resolution authorizing the Iraq war and remained one of the war's fiercest critics.
Kennedy fought for those causes in the Senate and spoke for them as the leader of his party's liberal wing. The senator's Web site, marking his death early Wednesday, featured the quotation that summed up that commitment, taken from his remarkable address to the Democratic National Convention in New York in 1980 as the last flames of his presidential candidacy were extinguished.
To tears throughout Madison Square Garden, Kennedy issued the call that echoed through the rest of this life: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."
Ronald Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Biden, recalled that speech early Wednesday as he reflected on Kennedy's death. "For many of us active in politics and policy," he said, "Senator Kennedy's stirring speech at the 1980 Democratic convention is a statement of idealism, determination and principle in politics that still inspires and guides."
Charles Campion, a Boston-based political consultant who recalled standing for 12 hours at a VFW hall in West Roxbury, Mass., during Kennedy's first race for the Senate in 1962, said early Wednesday, "His greatest legacy was his own faith and unwavering beliefs. He followed his own compass and regardless of polls and even his own political vulnerabilities, he would never compromise or finesse on his principles."
Those convictions made him a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives. Through much of the last quarter century, the name Kennedy was used by Republican strategists to tar other politicians running for office, a guilt-by-association label that became a staple in many GOP campaigns.
Kennedy seemed an easy target in those political conflicts, an old-fashioned liberal who in an age when many prefer the label "progressive" never flinched from defending liberalism or ran from the label and what it stood for. Yet, when George W. Bush came to the White House in 2001, it was Kennedy to whom he reached out for help in passing his education reform initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.
That, too, was typical of Kennedy's life and legacy. As much as he was the liberal's liberal, he was the legislator's legislator, a man willing and able to work across party lines, a politician of deep conviction who knew how and when to cut a deal, who believed in the end that the role of a politician was to make progress, if not all at once then step by step.
He loved the Senate and his affable personality helped lubricate relationships that otherwise might never have existed. He was both respected and well liked by his political opponents. He worked closely on legislation with Republicans like John McCain of Arizona (McCain's 2008 presidential candidacy was, for a time, badly damaged by his association with Kennedy on immigration reform) and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Both men recently noted how the health care battle this year might have been different had Kennedy been able to participate, and his death brought statements of sadness and respect from Republicans as well as Democrats. Hatch described him as an "iconic, larger than life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated."
Not that Kennedy shrank from partisan combat. His relentless attacks on Robert Bork, whose 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court was blocked by Democratic opposition, will long be remembered by conservatives and Republicans for its harshness.
But when the time came for moving legislation, few senators were ever shrewder or more committed to delivering results than Kennedy. Backed by one of the most able staffs on Capitol Hill, Kennedy churned through legislation, mastering policy and process, knowing the angles and earning the respect of allies and rivals as he pushed for results.
"Senator Kennedy represented a balance between principle and practicality that set the standard for effective political leadership," said Democratic strategist Geoff Garin. "On the one hand, he was a passionate and compelling advocate for social justice. At the same time, he believed in the art of compromise and in the value of getting things done. That combination resulted in an extraordinary body of landmark legislation and also created a modern day model of legislative leadership at its best."
Kennedy's legacy also is one of personal redemption. His first dreams of winning the White House were ended in 1969 when he drove off a bridge on Martha's Vineyard's Chappaquiddick Island that resulted in the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and the accident trailed him for years
His 1980 campaign, in which he challenged a sitting president of his own party, foundered at least in part by Kennedy's own lack of readiness as a candidate. Through many of those years, his personal life was in turmoil. His first marriage ended in divorce. But he turned his life around, settling into his role as a leader of the Senate and a new marriage to Victoria Reggie, who remained at his side throughout the year-long battle with cancer.
Kennedy's death Tuesday night came one year to the day when he appeared before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, sick with cancer and fighting a painful case of kidney stones. Everyone in the hall knew it would be the last convention Kennedy would address. As in Madison Square Garden 28 years earlier, there were many tears that night in Denver, but for a different reason.
Kennedy's body was weak but his spirit was strong and his voice resonant. " I have come here tonight," he said in his rich Boston accent, "to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States."
He lived to see Obama elected and inaugurated, but not to participate in or see the end of the battle to change the nation's health care system. But he has left behind a legacy that few in public life will ever achieve.
Posted at 9:46 AM ET on Aug 26, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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