Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Lion of the Senate

In the late 1950s, I was a bartender at the Harvard Club of Boston. I served Ted Kennedy. I was in my early 20s. He was in his late 20s. The first time he placed an order it was for a scotch and water with just enough scotch “to color the water.” He always greeted me courteously with that familiar Kennedy smile.

Because of that personal connection, over the next few years, I developed a fondness for him and throughout my life his life’s vicissitudes, tribulations, and personal failings often attracted my curiosity.

At these events, Ted Kennedy was unremarkable amongst his peers; one would never suspect he would be our next Senator from Massachusetts filling the seat once held by his brother John F. Kennedy. Through his long tenure and influence, he became known as the “Lion of the Senate,” a major figure and spokesman for American progressivism while writing more than 300 pieces of legislation. Up to his death on August 25, 2009, he had been re-elected nine times and had served forty-six years.

Although a unique, respected legislator with a mastery of the legislative process, Ted Kennedy’s personal life took a beating: he has been repeatedly vilified for Chappaquiddick, womanizing, alcoholism, and his wealth, which in view of his advocacy for the poor and downtrodden, left him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy; he suffered the loss of his brother Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. in World War II and his sister Kathleen Agnes Kennedy in an airplane crash, as well as his brothers President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy at the hands of an assassin; and he nearly lost his life in a fatal plane crash in 1964 that left him with a life-altering back injury.

And yet through it all, Ted Kennedy persevered. Through much adversity, he continued to be an effective legislator. His virtues as a hardworking senator, a master at bipartisan negotiation, one who loved his family, a compassionate voice for social justice and champion of working people were often overlooked.

In a column he wrote for Newsweek, “The Cause of My Life,” an article reflecting his enduring goal of universal healthcare, he said that the cost of healthcare reform inaction will be greater over the next decade than the cost of reform itself, and millions more will become uninsured or underinsured; that in other advanced nations, everyone has insurance and health outcomes are equal or better than ours; that inaction would threaten the health of Americans as well as undermine our ability to compete and succeed in the global economy; that universal healthcare legislation would end our disgrace as the only major industrialized nation not guaranteeing healthcare for all of its people; that in his illness he has relied on his congressional insurance, saying “I have never had to worry whether I could afford my care and treatment.”

During his illness, he had thought as never before what universal healthcare would mean to others, and that there is a need to “create a system to ensure someday, when there is a cure for the disease I now have, no American who needs it will be denied.”

Conversely, with the election of Scott Brown, voters in Massachusetts denounced Ted Kennedy’s dream of universal healthcare. Ted Kennedy’s cause apparently has for now passed away with him. But just perhaps his dream and the dream of so many Americans who need universal healthcare will subliminally persist and surface again sometime in the future.