As a boy from New England, Senator Ted Kennedy's presence loomed over my life like the White Mountains over my home state of New Hampshire.
He was a man of many contradictions: A passionate partisan and idealistic Democrat, yet beloved by Republicans colleagues; a playboy with an unruly personal life, yet a mythically disciplined legislator; a man who faced equal parts majestic triumph and unparalleled tragedy.
Ted Kennedy died last night. He was 77.
This morning, while colleagues like Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and Sens. like John McCain, Robert Byrd, Joe Biden and Orin Hatch remember him as a gritty, honest, charismatic and principled lawmaker, I will remember Ted Kennedy mostly as a person.
Kennedy, who served 46 years as the most well-known Democrat in the Senate, longer than all but two other senators, faced unprecedented tragedy: He was the only one of four brothers to reach old age. President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy succumbed to assassins’ bullets in their 40s. The eldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., died in 1944 at the age of 29 while on a World War II bombing mission.
Many called it the "Kennedy curse." But in the face of tragedy and personal demons — he almost died in a plane crash in 1964 and killed a friend in a driving accident in 1969 — Ted Kennedy retained an almost caricature-like optimism about America. His yes-we-can, never-say-die mentality enabled him to push through many pieces of civil rights legislation in the 1960s at a time when this country and much of our government was brimming with bigotry and xenophobia. Even after losing a 1980 bid for the presidency, he delivered one of the most memorable and positive speeches in America's history:
“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” Kennedy said in the postscript to a concession speech at a packed Madison Square Garden. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Kennedy suffered a seizure in 2008 and was diagnosed with brain cancer, but still continued to strive for universal health care, which he called "the cause of my life." He endorsed President Obama at a turning point in the 2008 President Election, and electrified the Democratic National Convention when making a surprise appearance and lively speech in his powerful Boston brogue. Even with a stunted gait and failing health, he, as always, remained startlingly optimistic and energetic:
“I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States," he said. "We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principal and bold endeavor. But when John Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn't say, 'It's too far to get there. We shouldn't even try.'
"Our people answered his call and rose to his challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon. Yes we are all Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again." Watch Kennedy's speech below:
Although he was known as the Liberal Lion of the Senate and the greatest Democrat of our era, Ted Kennedy will also be remembered for his ability to work with Republicans — not to score political points but to achieve what's best for all Americans, regardless of political or social status.
With Republican Senator Orin Hatch of Utah, Kennedy brokered a deal to provide health insurance for children. With Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, Kennedy worked to pass immigration reform. In the early Reagan years, when he reached across the aisle to prevent the extinction of a Democratic employment program by forging a public-private job-training system acceptable to the GOP, his partner was Dan Quayle, the freshman senator from Indiana and future Republican vice-president.
Kennedy believed in Democratic principles and philosophies. But more importantly, he believed in America, he believed in our system of government, and he believed with a good-intentioned heart and hard work, we as Americans could achieve anything.
In the July 27 issue of Newsweek, Kennedy graced the magazine's cover, with the quote "We're almost there: The Long Struggle for Universal Healthcare" captioned beside him. He believed President Obama could end that struggle and deliver healthcare for all Americans. He, as always, remained optimistic until his dying day.
"For me, this is a season of hope," Kennedy said at last year's Democratic National Convention, where he endorsed Obama. "New hope for a justice and prosperity for the many, not just for the few. New hope — and this is the cause of my life — that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American, north, south, east, west, young, old, will have decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege."
Watching him my whole life, I have been imbued with Kennedy's yes-we-can attitude. I too, like everyone, have my own personal demons. I fight them everyday. But I believe the beacons inside of us will always outshine even our darkest shadows if we stick together: The resoluteness of the American spirit knows no bounds.
Consequently, I believe our current lawmakers can put aside their differences like Kennedy often did and make Kennedy's dream for universal healthcare a reality — not trying to score political points by stunting reform, but working toward legislation that benefits all Americans. And I hope when they sign that bill, Old Teddy's name is atop the legislaton. It would be a fitting tribute for a man who knew this day would come in a country like ours where anything can be achieved.
R.I.P. Ted Kennedy. You will be missed.