Editorial: The Senate loses a lion

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Had F. Scott Fitzgerald been a contemporary of Ted Kennedy, the writer might well have reconsidered his oft-repeated aphorism that “there are no second acts in American lives.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had one of the more remarkable second acts in American politics, and many segments of our society ó especially the downtrodden, the dispossessed, senior citizens ó are better off because of it.
The eulogies pouring in upon Kennedy’s death at age 77 have rightly paid tribute to him as the white-maned “Lion of the Senate,” the thunder-voiced keeper of the Kennedy flame and symbol of Democratic liberalism in service to the nation’s neediest citizens. But to fully appreciate Kennedy’s second-act role as a masterful politician, you have to put it in the context of family tragedies and personal failings, which at times made him more resemble Shakespeare’s King Lear than a legislative impresario.
As a young man, he was expelled from Harvard because of a cheating scandal. After losing his eldest brother, Joseph, in a plane crash in World War II, he saw his brothers John and Robert gunned down by assassins. As a neophyte senator, he indulged in well-reported episodes of boozy dissipation and debauchery, including the1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which he fled the the accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. Then, in 1980, he failed to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter. That ignominous loss apparently made Kennedy realize his role in the political dynasty would not include the Oval Office prize that patriarch Joe Kennedy so highly coveted for his sons.
It was both bitter political defeat and defining moment. As a Washington Post article notes, thereafter “he seemed liberated from the towering expectations and high hopes invested in him after the death of his brothers, and he plunged into his work in the Senate.” Although his personal life still had its messy eruptions, Kennedy developed a reputation as an effective, diligent lawmaker. His legislative accomplishments included measures to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Meals on Wheels for the elderly, family leave and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He was also a key negotiator on legislation creating No Child Left Behind and a Medicare drug benefit. And by endorsing Barack Obama over of Hillary Clinton, the grizzled lion proved himself still capable not only of bucking elements within the Democrat Party establishment but his own family as well.
In his latter years, Kennedy carried the torch for universal health care ó a cause he continued to promote while waging his own courageous battle against cancer. It’s no small irony that just as that goal shimmers on the horizon, Ted Kennedy is now absent from the stage. How he might have affected the outcome, we’ll never know. But no one should doubt the energy and passion he would have brought to the debate.