The Kennedy Legacy

Our View: The Death Of Edward M. Kennedy, Tireless Fighter For The Poor And Disenfranchised, Leaves The "Torch" Of Idealism Passed To Another Generation

August 27, 2009

An unlikely, flawed heir to America's political royal family who experienced tragedy, disgrace and triumph in a life of epic proportions, Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy will be remembered as not only one of the most influential political figures of the era but for a life that was quite simply larger than life.

For many Americans, he will be recalled fondly as the last of a generation of Kennedys who brought glamour, celebrity and a healthy dose of charisma to public life. But it was only after the untimely deaths of his older brothers that he stepped to the fore - and soon brought scandal to the family name with the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick Island.

Alcoholism, womanizing and his failed bid for the presidency in 1980 further tarnished that image. For a lot of Republicans, he was the poster boy for tax-and-spend Northeastern limousine liberalism, the punch line for conservative humorists, his name evoked as often at GOP fundraisers as Democratic ones.

But the "Lion of the Senate" found redemption in Congress and the legislative process. When it came to moving bills through the chamber, he was without peer. Democrats and Republicans alike praised his ability to build coalitions, to find common ground with his detractors and pass legislation with bipartisan support.

Many of the landmark laws passed by Congress during the era had his stamp on them, particularly in matters of civil rights, medicine, welfare, crime and education. From Head Start for young children to Title IX opportunities for women in school sports, he was instrumental in their creation.

How cruel that he should end his battle with brain cancer before groundbreaking legislation directed at the seminal cause of his career, making affordable health care available to all Americans, could reach the Senate floor.

Senator Kennedy's rise, fall, and rise again refutes F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that there are "no second acts in American lives." The tragedies of his life were numerous, almost Shakespearean. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy five years later were seared into the public consciousness as vividly - and painfully - as the events of Sept. 11 were nearly eight years ago.

And that was far from the end of the family's travails, scandals and tragic deaths. The Chappaquiddick incident would likely have ended the political career of anyone else. Even his effort to unseat President Jimmy Carter in the senator's only run for the White House 28 years ago had its own self-destructive moments including, most tellingly, his inability to tell an interviewer why he was running.

Yet Senator Kennedy survived all of it. Even his critics would acknowledge his greatest strengths were his perseverance and his unwavering idealism, two hallmarks of his family. In his often-quoted inaugural address in 1961, President Kennedy spoke of a torch being handed to a new generation looking to end poverty and defend liberty. Little could he have known, but for most of the ensuing four decades that torch would be carried most prominently by his youngest brother.

The 77-year-old's death now raises the question: Who will carry that torch? In yet another twist of fate, Senator Kennedy pointed the way himself and helped make history again by helping elect the nation's first president of African-American descent. His endorsement of Barack Obama shortly before last year's Super Tuesday elections was instrumental in his election to the post many once assumed Senator Kennedy was destined to inherit.

"This work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on." Those were Mr. Kennedy's closing words to the Democratic Convention in Denver last year. They would serve as a fitting epitaph for a man of oversized strengths and weaknesses, a rakish Prince Hal and a florid Falstaff with a Boston brogue, whose imprint on American history may prove greater than anyone could have imagined.

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