Senator Edward Kennedy passed away August 25 after a battle with brain cancer. As the patriarch of America's most political family, this "Lion of the Senate" will leave a lasting legacy of public service. Even his political opponents have praised his energy and achievements and would agree that Kennedy's career has been exceptional.
Like many of our families, the House of Kennedy was built at the dinner table. "One of my most vivid memories is of our family gatherings around the table at dinnertime," Ted Kennedy recalled.
In an Oprah.com exclusive, Vincent Bzdek, a Washington Post features editor and Kennedy biographer, remembers Senator Kennedy and his contributions.
The dining room was classroom as much as eating-place. One family friend remembers a map on the wall that Joe Kennedy would unfurl to make points to his children. It was where Joe and Rose Kennedy first engaged their children's minds in politics and current affairs, where the nine siblings all struggled to carve out their unique roles within the family hierarchy, where their competitive instincts were honed, their rivalries were worked out and the ties that bound them so tightly to each other were rewrapped nightly.
It was also where the four Kennedy brothers staked out distinct identities that would stamp them for the rest of their lives. Joe Jr. was the family's star, Jack its wit, Bobby its soul and Ted its laugh. Joe was the most combative of the four, Jack the most reflective, Bobby the most intense and Teddy the most agreeable. Joe lapped up politics; Jack, history; Bobby, religion, and Ted the company of others. Ted, with his easygoing gregariousness, made everyone smile.
But in the Kennedy pantheon, Ted was the overlooked son, "the runt of the litter," "the baby of the family," the one who never quite rose to the stature of his martyred brothers. Now that the last of the brothers is gone, and just two weeks after the passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, it is finally time to rethink that legacy. John and Robert may have captured the country's imagination, but it has been Ted who most improved people's reality and has been the default patriarch and father figure to his fallen brothers' children. In nearly five decades of behind-the-scenes Senate work, he achieved much, though not all, of his brothers' unfinished dreams. "This is the most consequential legislative career in the country's history," said Thomas Oliphant, who as a correspondent and columnist for the Boston Globe has chronicled Kennedy's career. "It probably had more impact on more people than many presidents. In actual, measurable impact on the lives of tens of millions of working families, the elderly and the needy, Kennedy belongs in the same sentence with Franklin Roosevelt."
The mountain of achievements he has compiled or played a significant part in include the creation of Medicare, the family and medical leave bill, national service legislation, freedom of access to abortion clinics, the lifting of the abortion gag rule and women's health legislation, including fetal tissue research. Ted Kennedy helped create Meals on Wheels for senior citizens. He also has a strong history of gun control efforts—including early support for the Brady bill and opposition to the National Rifle Association dating from 1968.
However, perseverance may well be Ted Kennedy's crowning contribution. He has been the only real constant in the half-century construction of the Kennedy legacy. In stubbornly keeping on, he managed to keep alive something many of JFK's and then Bobby's contemporaries thought died with those men in the 1960s. In other words, he carried the torch when his brothers could not—and the nation needed it most. For 49 years, Ted's guiding purpose was to promote the message of sacrifice, optimism and public service that JFK first lit in 1960.
That perseverance has kept that Kennedy flame burning long and bright enough to bequeath the family legacy to another who inspired millions of Americans much as he and his brothers had done. On January 28, 2008, Ted, his son Patrick and Caroline Kennedy gift-wrapped that political and social legacy—with all its baggage and all its glow—and handed it off not to another Kennedy but to underdog presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was one year old when Ted began his career.
In a rousing speech at American University, Ted told the crowd, of Obama, "Every time I've been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same. I'll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes, and renew our beliefs that our country's best days are still to come. I found that candidate, and I think you have to."
Now President Barack Obama returned the compliment at the end of the day. "The Kennedy family, more than any other, has always stood for what's best about the Democratic Party, and about America," he said. "That each of us can make a difference and all of us ought to try." Ted Sorensen, John's speechwriter, points out that John Kennedy and Obama share an extraordinary number of similarities. Both went to Harvard, both rose to national attention almost overnight after appearances at the Democratic convention, both wrote best-selling political books and both had a youthful appeal that engaged record numbers of new voters and young voters. Most similar is the tenor of their speeches, which focus on the politics of hope rather than five-point programs or national malaise.
"I would not be sitting here as a presidential candidate had it not been for some of the battles that Ted Kennedy has fought," President Obama said in one of his campaign speeches. "I stand on his shoulders." In the final assessment, the last Kennedy brother, the one who was least likely to succeed, may have succeeded beyond any other. As the Kennedy family grieves the loss of their loved one, we as Americans grieve the loss of a "Lion."
Vincent Bzdek is a news editor and a features writer at The Washington Post and the author of the new book THE KENNEDY LEGACY: Jack, Bobby, and Ted, and a Family Dream Fulfilled.
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Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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