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The Cause of Ted Kennedy's Life


"This is the cause of my life," Ted Kennedy wrote. "For four decades I have carried this cause — from the floor of the United States Senate to every part of this country. It has never been merely a question of policy; it goes to the heart of my belief in a just society."

Kennedy was talking about health care. But then, Kennedy was always talking about health care. He was talking about it when he helped pass Medicare and Medicaid in the '60s. When he tried to reach a deal with Richard Nixon in the '70s. When he made it the center of his challenge to Jimmy Carter in the '80s. When he created the Children's Health Insurance Program in the '90s. When he directed his staff to begin educating senators and stakeholders for President Obama's effort late last year.

There is an impulse to honor the dead by erasing the sharp edges of their life. To ensure they belong to all of us, and in doing, deprive them of the dignity conferred by their actual choices, their lonely stands, and their long work. But Ted Kennedy didn't belong to all of us. He didn't even belong to all Democrats. He was not of the party that voted for more than a trillion in unfunded tax cuts but cannot bring itself to pay for health-care reform. He was not of the party that fears the next election more than the next failure to help America's needy. Rather, he belonged to the party of Medicare and Medicaid, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Civil Rights Act and immigration reform. He belonged to the party that sought to advance the conditions and opportunities of the least among us. He was, as Harold Meyerson says, "the senior senator from Massachusetts and for all the excluded in American life."

And he still is.

In recent weeks, the illness that would lead to Kennedy's death was being invoked to stymie the work of Kennedy's life. "It's huge that he's absent," John McCain told George Stephanopoulos, "not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health-care reform might be in a very different place today." But for Kennedy, there were no excuses. Year after year, decade after decade, he labored to pass health-care reform. He sought deals with Republican presidents, with Democratic presidents, and even pursued the office himself. He tried to cut out the health-care industry and bring them to the table, to move forward on a bipartisan fashion and on a Democratic platform, to pass single-payer and to promote incrementalist approaches. The process wasn't the point. Nor were the people. Nor, even, was Ted Kennedy. Universal health care was the point. Helping the excluded, and the endangered, was the point.

And there are still no excuses -- least of all his death. The loss of one man does not deny the moral urgency of achieving a "just society." Those who would use Kennedy's absence to explain their failure do terrible injury to his legacy. The cause of Kennedy's life was not, after all, praise or compliments. It was, as he said, to "guarantee that every American…will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not just a privilege." That dream will never die. But by being realized, it can finally rest in peace.

Photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 26, 2009; 9:37 AM ET
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I love it that you wrote this!

There have been, and will be, many who claim to have such great respect for Kennedy and feel so badly that he died, blah, blah, blah, but have no interest whatsoever in helping truly achieve his cause - his effort to truly improve our system for everyone, not just those who could afford it.

I'm sure he's thinking right now "put up or shut up."

Posted by: bmrobert64 | August 26, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

"but cannot bring itself to pay for health-care reform"

Health care reform isn't something you should have to pay for- yet here again and again we see advocates demanding expansion of third party payments to providers that are proven to raise costs.

Direct payments to providers allow us to shop for the best value. Providing the best value allows us to expand better care to more people. We don't demand that the government set food prices- we shouldn't demand that they set health care prices either. We need a food stamps equivalent for health care that protects poor children and the elderly. We need cheaper insurance that is real insurance, no rescission and high deductible, not prepaid care.

Replicating our failed insurance model with a public version of the same doesn't fix anything, it only makes the problems bigger, and it's sad to me that Kennedy's last days were spent pursuing this folly. Let's take this as an opportunity to move the debate forward into an area where we all win.

Posted by: staticvars | August 26, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

" The point of Kennedy's iconic dream was not to be honored, or praised, or to live forever. It was to be achieved."

when i think of teddy kennedy, i think of the quote from helen keller.
"there is suffering, and there is also the overcoming of suffering."
what a human profile in courage, teddy kennedy was.

kennedy's eye was always on the future. it seemed that his eye always was fixed on helping others.
especially in his own family.
teddy kennedy lived no charmed life.
who could even imagine what his life was like?
constant tragedy, and having to sort all of it out, in the brightest public glare of scrutiny and criticism, year after year.

two brothers, who set the mark so high for him to live up to...both shot to death. his son's illness, marital strife, deep personal scandal, untimely deaths of younger family members...and having to be strong thoughout all of it.

and through all of it, his fingerprints were on almost countless pieces of legislation.
there never seemed to be a trace of cynicism or unkindness in his spirit.
who could be so forgiving of the world, as to want to continue contributing after watching his brothers shot?
and yet, he did.
he continued, even through scandals....without bitterness or cynicism or unkindness.
i hope that democrats can learn from this.
the phrase, dont let the perfect be the enemy of the good, fits well for his life.
in spite of his frailties, he retained his hope, without bitterness or malice, or small-naturedness.
i believe it was a great declaration of his desire to have barack obama as his spiritual predecessor. it was a bold move to support him with such profound commitment.
we have to draw together at this time. we have to focus on the art of the possible in a very suffering and imperfect world.
the journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single, painful footstep. in the face of the greatest adversities and disappointments, kennedy sought common ground and tried to pay it forward.
in honoring his accomplishments, we have to do the same.

Posted by: jkaren | August 26, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Amen Ezra. And also what Ted Kennedy said about his brother Bobby:

Posted by: Castorp1 | August 26, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

His absence was felt in the Democrats' complete lack of legislative strategy this summer. Had he been there, perhaps he could have helped the administration develop an actual plan instead of opening up a rudderless free-for-all on the Hill.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 26, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

The social programs Sen. Kennedy championed have undoubtably done a lot of good for a lot of Americans. But they have also contributed mightily to the fiscal hole our nation finds itself in. The massive unfunded liabilities the of Medicare and Social Security programs are also his legacy.

Would that his compassion had led him to support programs for the truly needy rather than perverse transfer programs which took from the comparatively poorer young and gave to the elderly, irrespective of need.

Posted by: tbass1 | August 26, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

THANK YOU Ezra. Not just because it was beautiful, or because it was right, but also because it got the point. We need all the help we can get, because we are going to get hit by a wave of media moralizing and dishonest hypocrisy from the likes of McCain. We are going to be hearing from the media about Chappaquiddick (Drudge emphasized it) and about how this sinks health reform because Ensign and Coburn would have signed up to his wonderful bipartisan agenda. In other words, we will be hearing dishonest, hypocritical rubbish, and I will refer I everybody I know to what you wrote as an antidote.

Posted by: selg | August 26, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Beautifuly written. In 1997, to help inform uninsured families about the availability of health coverage for uninsured families under SCHIP, Senator Kennedy took the time to record a public service announcement for the small non-profit health care outreach organization I direct. He really did care about the excluded.

Posted by: chipjh | August 26, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

While I disagreed with many of Senator Kennedy's policies and how he chose to get there no matter your party affilliation every single American has been positively affected by him in so many ways. From COBRA to SCHIP, to HIPAA and beyond. Not to mention the issues he championed beyond healthcare which are just as if not more diverse and important. I just wish the right had an equivalent to Teddy Kennedy that we could look to who could get past the rhetoric and get to the reforms that are needed.

We may go kicking and screaming but the point is we go. And we need to get there. We need the checks and balances on each side and Senator Kennedy helped get us there and that's the point of a great legislator.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 26, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Ted Kennedy will surely be missed. There should be more senators like him. I left a condolence on his online memorial at

Posted by: cdevine1 | August 26, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Rest in Peace Senator Kennedy.

Congress, honor the Great Senator, give us the Public Option.

Posted by: cenicero | August 26, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

As Ted Kennedy was preparing to marry his first wife, Joan, I remember, as a thirteen year-old boy, being outside St. Joseph's Church in Bronxville, N.Y. Ted and his brothers, Bobby and Jack, were going in the back entrance. My brother and I had been outside playing basketball and came over to see what all the fuss was about. JFK asked me to throw him the basketball and I complied. They were looking for an extra altar boy to serve at the wedding, but because we had sneakers on, neither one of us qualified.

Politics aside, this is one of those memories that sticks with you over the years, fifty to be exact. May he rest in peace.

Posted by: papatonyc | August 26, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

kennedy is a hypocrite for not calling for a universal right to food and shelter, which are certainly much more important than health care insurance.

Posted by: dummypants | August 26, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Ted Kennedy's efforts are admirable and we will all miss him. Its too bad the liberals' insistence on reforming health insurance by working outside the
system - instead of within the current healthcare system--created the chaos we now have. Its possible to reform health insurance: through competition and torte reform, opening up interstate commerce, etc.

Posted by: ohioan | August 26, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Under the present reform bill, there will be a ceiling on what people can spend, and those in Kennedy's position, of his age and overall health, will find it exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to get the quality of care he got. The "difficult democratic conversation" the president said we will have to have about allocation of resources is surely about the very issue of taking all possible measures to prolong life in the elderly or the infirm. So where does that leave things? That there will be an elite who will still be able to go to the best surgeons, no matter where that surgeon is located, to the best national cancer centers, like Anderson in Houston, but ordinary citizens will be prohibited? What will be the rules for that "best level" of care? No one dares to answer this.

Posted by: truck1 | August 26, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

When I look at Massachusett's journey and tremendous courage to provide universal health care , I see the living testament that Senator Kennedy's spirit continues to influence us all..

Posted by: notmd | August 26, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

truck1 at 1:25: Precisely which part of that scenario doesn't apply right now? The poor already can't afford expensive end-of-life treatment, while the rich have access to the best care their money can buy. Reform wouldn't do away with the latter issue, but it would assuage the former in real and dramatic ways (ideally by providing access to decent care to everyone, regardless of income). To be sure, the system couldn't pay for all the care everyone could possibly ask for, but as it stands, those whom it would aid most currently receive no care at all. The problems you cite already exist, and reform would ease, not exacerbate, them.

Posted by: fumphis | August 26, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I hope he fails.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 26, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

NEW YORK, Aug. 25 -- A wealthy investment banker and prominent fundraiser for President Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top Democrats was arrested Tuesday on charges that he lied to get a $74 million business loan.
Prosecutors accused Hassan Nemazee of giving Citibank "fraudulent and forged" documents showing that he owned millions of dollars in collateral. A criminal complaint also accuses Nemazee of providing false verifying information for financial institutions, including a phone number that actually belonged to him.
Prosecutors said FBI agents stopped the 59-year-old financier on Sunday at Newark Liberty International Airport as he prepared to board a flight to Rome.
Nemazee, chairman and chief executive of New York-based Nemazee Capital, was national finance co-chairman for Clinton's presidential bid last year, and after her primary defeat he raised money for Obama. In 2004, he worked for the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as New York state finance chairman.
A Clinton spokesman didn't immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton picked Nemazee to be U.S. ambassador to Argentina, but his nomination was never confirmed.
Nemazee, who did not enter a plea or speak at the court hearing, faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine if convicted.

Posted by: hclark1 | August 26, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

You don't have to be "rich" to decide to put what money you have into buying the best healthcare for yourself, or a loved one, AS THINGS STAND NOW. I have seen highschool kids raise tons of money so that some child from a poor family can go to a top of the line cancer clinic. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN under Obamacare. You would have to prove to me that you will be able to supplement the base cost paid by insurance in the way you can now. You would have to show me where in the "public option" that possibility is open. You have not addressed the issue of whether an individual will be able to allocate as much as he wants for medical care, or whether there will be legal limits. There surely were under Hillary's plan. Doctors themselves were legally limited in the kind and amount of effective treatment they could offer, depending upon who was living within the confines of their "regional alliance", as the insurance pools were under that plan. What about the "democratic conversation" the president has said will have to take place? What do you suppose the topic of that conversation will be? Your favorite flavor of ice cream? Do you think Kennedy was subjected to a "tough democratic conversation" about his care? Only hacks and demagogues make this an issue of "the rich" versus "the poor." It's really an issue of whether an individual is free to spend and raise money for whatever purpose he so chooses -- say, preserving the life of a beloved child. Or not.

Posted by: truck1 | August 26, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Nicely done. Democrats -- and the nation as a whole -- would be best served by seizing the moment, uniting behind health care reform legislation that embodies the Kennedy spirit and giving it a name that's both appropriate and easy for everyone to understand: Tedicare.

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 26, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Although Senator Kennedy was born into wealth, he was very concerned about all people. His record speaks for itself;Medicare, Medicade,Schip and the list goes on. He truly was a public servant. I sincerely hope that a program of government insurance will become a reality. It is badly needed for so many Americans. It would be very fitting, indeed to name such a bill after Senator Ted Kennedy who gave so much to this country.

Posted by: ellej28 | August 26, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

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