Gotta say, Ted Kennedy has always been one of my heroes...
The Boston Globe
Surprise in this stealth Kennedy threat
By Peter Canellos
Globe Staff / May 20, 2008
WASHINGTON -- News about the Kennedys has so often come in shocking bursts, such as plane crashes and gunfire, that yesterday's revelation that the senior senator from Massachusetts is suffering from a deadly illness had a quiet poignancy all its own.
Days when Democrats worried that an assassin might try to remove the last Kennedy brother have long since receded, and Ted Kennedy carries a new image as the Senate's indefatigable warrior. So it was a surprise that something as ordinary as cancer would be what slows down Kennedy's relentless drive to promote liberal causes, build coalitions, and pass legislation.
And yet, as many grimly noted, Kennedy is 76 and brain cancer is often deadly. So there was profound sadness throughout the Capitol. Democratic senators gathering for their weekly policy lunch said a prayer. Republicans at their weekly lunch described a deep feeling of sorrow.
Many spoke of how Kennedy's 46-year career has helped define the Senate.
"His life diverged from his brothers and he's become a kind of stalwart -- a symbol of a type of liberalism that really dates back to FDR," said University of New Hampshire historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, describing Kennedy's philosophy as "a vigorous commitment to use the levers of government to help people."
But, as Fitzpatrick noted, Kennedy's importance to national politics is far more than symbolic, and his illness comes at a moment when his centrality to the legislative process has never been more apparent.
Kennedy long ago mastered the trick of remaining effective in the Senate even when his party was in the minority -- allowing him to advance such issues as arms control, opposition to South African apartheid, and increased funding of education programs even at times when his fellow Democrats were at their lowest ebb.
And yet the Democrats' return to the majority in both houses of Congress last January gave a special boost to Kennedy, who immediately passed his top priority -- an increase in the minimum wage. He also worked with President Bush and Senator John McCain to craft an immigration bill that combined punishment with a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
That bill ran into a solid bloc of conservative opposition in the Senate, as did another of Kennedy's key initiatives -- a major expansion of aid for children's health. But his agenda only expanded as he performed the hard work of recruiting Republican co-sponsors to help advance his priorities.
"He just has such skill in bringing disparate elements of the Senate together on important public-policy questions," said William Carrick, a California political consultant who worked for Kennedy in the 1980s. "He is unique in that regard. He has incredible skill and charm."
In recent months, Kennedy has been especially energetic, maintaining a busy speaking schedule while jetting home every week to Massachusetts. In addition, he hit the presidential campaign trail with vigor, including a week-long blitz before Super Tuesday that many believe helped Kennedy's candidate, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, hold the favored Hillary Clinton to a draw on the day when 24 states went to the polls.
From there, Obama went on to win 11 straight contests and take a lead in elected delegates that he has not relinquished.
"When we get some distance from the campaign and look back on it, Senator Kennedy's endorsement made a lot of people more comfortable voting for Obama," said Carrick. "Kennedy gave tremendous validation to Obama's campaign at a critical time."
Implicit in the endorsement, of course, was the idea that Kennedy would provide legislative guidance -- and muscle -- to an Obama Administration, should one materialize.
An Obama presidency would provide yet another opportunity for Kennedy to advance his lifelong goal of national health insurance. There have been many junctures at which Kennedy has pushed ahead with plans for a single-payer style system, only to be thwarted. Lately, however, he's embraced the idea that progress on health care can be made incrementally, with less disruption to the current system.
Kennedy's ability to maintain a sense of idealism in setting goals, and realism in achieving them, would be crucial to Obama, should he become president, according to Carrick, Fitzpatrick, and many others.
Now, as he is undergoing further tests in Massachusetts General Hospital -- an institution he has done much to fund over the years -- and prepares to battle a disease for which he has done more than any other legislator to fight, Kennedy and his legacy are on the minds of one and all in Washington.
"I think you can argue that I would not be sitting here as a presidential candidate had it not been for some of the battles that Ted Kennedy has fought," said Obama, appearing on CNN. "So not only is he a personal friend, not only has been one of my most important supporters during the course of this campaign. But he is somebody who battled for voting rights and civil rights when I was a child.
"I stand on his shoulders."