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Mourning Ted Kennedy – and picking up reform where he left off

Ted Kennedy was my senator from the time I knew what a senator was. He loomed over Massachusetts politics like no one else ever has or ever will—forty-seven years in the Senate, and fighting until the last.

He died August 25, 2009, exactly one year after making his speech at the Democratic National Convention endorsing Barack Obama. When he made that speech, Kennedy was already suffering from the brain cancer that would claim his life, but the last scion of the Camelot years was still able to electrify a new generation of progressive activists drawn into politics for the first time by Obama.

I was born in 1980, far too late to remember the more famous Kennedy brothers, and I grew up with Republican parents who groused that Ted Kennedy was the best argument out there for term limits. Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that in fact, Kennedy was instead the best argument against term limits. He never gave up, never sat back and coasted on his reputation, and when he died he was still fighting for health care reform that would help all Americans.

Michael Kelly wrote in GQ, in 1990 :

Even a partial listing of the major bills in whose passage Kennedy has played a part is impressive. Whether you admire them or not, these are the measures that transformed—mostly liberalized—America in our time: the first Immigration Reform Act; the Voting Rights Act and its extensions; the Freedom of Information Act; the Gun Control Act; the Campaign Financing Reform law; the Comprehensive Selective Service Reform Act; the Eighteen-Year-Old Vote law; the Occupational Safety and Health Act; the War on Cancer bills; the recodification of federal criminal laws; the Bilingual Education Act; the Fair Housing Acts; the Age Discrimination Act; the Airline and Trucking Deregulation bills; the Job Training Partnership Act; the South African sanctions; and the Grove City Civil Rights Restoration Act.

With all of those achievements, Kennedy said that “the best vote he ever cast” was against George W. Bush’s Iraq war. It was a vote that defined him to my generation, itself defined by that same war. His eloquent words were the ones that are remembered years later as the official opposition. Just 9 months after the invasion, Kennedy said:

I believe that this Administration is indeed leading this country to a perilous place. It has broken faith with the American people, aided and abetted by a Congressional majority willing to pursue ideology at any price, even the price of distorting the truth. On issue after issue, they have moved brazenly to impose their agenda on America and on the world. They have pursued their goals at the expense of urgent national and human needs and at the expense of the truth. America deserves better.

Kennedy remained on the side of the poor, the oppressed, despite his own very great privilege and famous family name. Stories coming out now, after his death, include reports of his visiting soldiers at Walter Reed hospital, unpublicized, and he is memorialized by great leftist leaders like Dolores Huerta, Republicans like Orrin Hatch and in a tearful speech, Vice President Joe Biden.

Kennedy was responsible for the death of a woman at Chappaquiddick, yes. And if the majority of the Senate had voted with him each time, how many lives would have been saved? He remains an example of the way good works can redeem a horrible act, and a reminder of what is lost every time a human being is locked up and the key thrown away.

Health care reform, what many people have called the great cause of Kennedy’s life, remains bogged down in misinformation, lies, and threats of violence, but Kennedy remained hopeful for the passage of a bill, and begged Massachusetts’ government to replace him quickly upon his death so that his passing would not delay the goal of which he so dreamed.

And so instead of mourning Ted Kennedy, it is time for us to take inspiration from his career. One year ago, he said: “This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. So, with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

There is no better way to celebrate Kennedy’s life and accomplishments than to redouble our efforts to pass real health care reform, now.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.