Kennedy: A Record of Public Service for Social Justice

By George Mitrovich 8-28-2009

The death of Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy marked the end of a remarkable era in the life of our country. Camelot, a time of hope, grows distant, its memories receding. The brothers are gone -- John, Bobby, and Ted. If America lasts 1,000 years we shall never again see their equals.

Ted Kennedy served in the United States Senate for 46 years, having been elected by the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts nine times. Only two senators in history served longer (Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd). He was known as the "Lion of the Senate." He was that -- and infinitely more.

Sen. Kennedy was responsible for more than 300 major pieces of legislation, including the Immigration and Nationality Act, the National Cancer Act, the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments, the COBRA Act, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Mental Health Parity Act, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

Kennedy opposed the Vietnam War, led the congressional fight to impose sanctions against South Africa over apartheid, succeeded in banning arms sales to Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet, helped greatly in the long effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland, and was ever vigilant on behalf of the poor on issues of social and economic justice, which his Meals on Wheels program for senior citizens dramatically underscores. But in all of those years, in all the causes he embraced, he called his vote against the resolution to sanction the Iraq war the "best vote" he ever cast.

With an ascendant conservatism and Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, Kennedy became the liberal conscience of American politics. While others retreated publicly from liberal policies and shamefully denied their "liberalism," Kennedy, unbowed and without apology, stood fast for progressive ideals and values. In a time marked by the politics of fear and loathing, he demonstrated admirable grace and courage -- and for that we owe him our eternal gratitude.

Among the most remarkable of Kennedy's many attributes was his ability to reach across the political aisle, working with Republican senators such as John McCain, Nancy Kassenbaum, Alan Simpson, and Orrin Hatch. Hatch, the conservative Republican from Utah, considered Kennedy his best friend in the Senate. Sen. Robert Dole, the Republican leader of the Senate, and Sen. Simpson shared for a time a daily radio show with Kennedy, one both serious and fun, which was no surprise, since all three senators greatly enjoyed a good laugh. But perhaps his greatest bipartisan moment was the "No Child Left Behind Act," the result of his partnership with President George W. Bush.

Kennedy's life was a triumph of determination and courage over unbelievable burdens and tragedies: the World War II death of his brother Joe Jr., who perished when his bomb-laden B-24 Liberator exploded over a small English village; his sister, Rosemary, who lived her life with severe disabilities; the stroke suffered by his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, that denied the ambassador his voice; the 1964 plane crash in Massachusetts when Kennedy nearly died and was left with back problems that shadowed him for the rest of his life; the breakup of his story book marriage to Joan Bennett Kennedy; a son, Edward, who at age 12 lost his leg to bone cancer; another son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, whose youth was repeatedly traumatized by life-threatening asthma attacks; the diagnosis of his daughter, Kara, with lung cancer (which she defeated); the death of his brother-in-law Stephen Smith, a key family advisor, who died at age 62; the death of his nephew John F. Kennedy Jr., and his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, in a small plane crash off Martha's Vineyard; the death of nephews Michael and David Kennedy; the death of his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, and sisters, Patricia Kennedy Lawford and Eunice Kennedy Shriver; and the assassination of brothers John and Bobby, deaths that shattered our nation -- and from which we have never recovered.

It is an astonishing list of misfortune that imposed upon anyone else might have crushed their spirits and killed their souls. But against this history Kennedy never wavered from his profound commitment to public service, of his consuming desire to serve America and the public interest. It is a marvel that the senator, judged against everything that happened in his life, was still ambulatory, much less a vital, even indispensable member of the body politic (as President Obama is discovering in his efforts to establish national health care without Kennedy at his side).

But as surely as his life was haunted by unspeakable tragedies, so too were there personal failings, from which his biography can never be separated -- and from which some shall judge him harshly and deny him forgiveness. Kennedy's failings, as judged by others, provide his despisers a certain latitude of legitimacy in rejecting his standing as the greatest of all U.S. senators.

Kennedy's life recalls what Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech on citizenship at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1923:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

In Kennedy's passing we have lost a great public servant, one whose life at its best and noblest embodied the highest ideals of American patriotism. Our nation owes an incalculable debt to the senator and to all within this amazing family, the greatest of all American political families, for their service to the country we love.

May the peace of God be with the spirit of Edward Moore Kennedy. He shall be greatly missed.

George Mitrovich, a San Diego civic leader, was an aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the presidential campaign of 1968.

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