Ted Kennedy: flawed but effective champion of liberalism

The passing of Sen. Edward Moore “Teddy” Kennedy has silenced the greatest liberal voice of the past 50 years and drawn the curtain on an epic generation of a political dynasty.

Kennedy, 77, who died last night from brain cancer, was the third-longest serving senator in the nation’s history. Although his liberalism was legendary, this Democrat’s true effectiveness was in his ability to compromise with Republicans to get his initiatives enacted into law.

He never quite matched the public’s adoration for his older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whose lives were cut short by assassins’ bullets. But Ted Kennedy’s legislative achievements far surpassed the impact of his brothers in the lives of ordinary citizens.

In 47 years in the Senate, Kennedy passed more than 300 laws. Among them are the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which made public places more accessible to the disabled, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program of 1997, which funded the largest expansion of health insurance coverage for children since the 1960s. The COBRA Act of 1985, signed into law by President Reagan, gave workers the ability to continue health insurance after leaving employment. And Title IX opened up college sports to young women.

He was a lifelong ally of organized labor and a relentless advocate for increasing the minimum wage. Kennedy also was a champion of education; in 2002 he worked with President George W. Bush to enact the No Child Left Behind law. Earlier this year, he teamed with President Obama to enact a law to encourage more national service. When he died, he was still pushing for his longtime goal of universal health care.

He was born into a family that expected and demanded greatness. Father Joe Kennedy planned for one of his sons to become the nation’s first Irish Catholic president; John Kennedy realized that dream in 1961. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, the torch passed to brother Bobby. When RFK, in turn, was cut down in 1968 as he was about to win the Democratic nomination for president, Ted stepped into the spotlight. A generation of Kennedy admirers will always remember his eulogy for his brother, in a trembling voice, honoring a man “who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

But Ted Kennedy never matched his brothers’ presidential aspirations. The explanation was found primarily in his undeniable flaws.

Throughout his life, there were times when it seemed the only thing that could stop Ted Kennedy’s achievements was Kennedy himself. A cheating scandal got him expelled from Harvard College. A long night of drinking in Palm Beach in 1991 ended with rape allegations against a nephew, who was ultimately acquitted. The scandal hampered the senator’s effectiveness in Congress for years afterward.

But the reckless act that dogged Kennedy his entire career took place at Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard, in 1969. After a party, the married Kennedy drove off a short wooden bridge with a young woman passenger in the car. The car sank into the inlet below and the woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a Pennsylvania native, drowned. Kennedy swam to safety but did not notify authorities until after her body was discovered the next day.

Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence. He won reelection to the Senate from Massachusetts the following year, but Chappaquiddick ended his presidential hopes until 1980, when he lost to President Carter in the Democratic primary.

Despite such self-inflicted scandals, Kennedy always rededicated himself to work harder in the Senate, renewing his focus on improving conditions for average Americans. Accomplishments such as the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, which forced insurers to treat the mentally ill more fairly, and the Ryan White Care Act, which enabled low-income AIDS patients to receive better treatment, are part of his compassionate legacy.

Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July 2009, but Kennedy was too ill to attend the ceremony. In recent months, his illness kept him from his duties in the Senate where his voice had boomed on behalf of the disadvantaged for so many decades.

For millions of Americans, Ted Kennedy made this country a fairer and better place to live. His leadership will be missed.