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A tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy

Published: September 4, 2009
Section: Opinions


When Edward M. Kennedy, Senator from Massachusetts, died last Wednesday morning from brain cancer, America lost a true giant, a man both highly gifted and deeply flawed, one who knew triumph and tragedy in equal measure. While there have been many eulogies both great and small in the days and weeks following his death, I wanted to take this opportunity to memorialize a very particular aspect of Ted Kennedy: the senator as a man who had what has been called “the courage of his convictions.”

Others have and surely will eulogize Ted Kennedy’s skill as a parliamentarian in brokering compromises – an ability for which the entire country will have cause to mourn the senator – but the note I wish to strike is that of Ted Kennedy as a proud, unwavering liberal. In an age when so many politicians have fled that label for the less charged title of “progressive,” Ted Kennedy was never ashamed by his association with liberal causes and the word itself. Indeed, so steadfast was his championship of liberal causes, from health care to education to civil rights, Republican political ads long ago took to using the senator as a measure of other liberals’ liberalism.

When Ted Kennedy first assumed his seat in the senate in 1962, many attacked the post as nothing more than a family sinecure; in a famous exchange one of Kennedy’s opponents declared that, “If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke.” And it’s certainly true that Ted Kennedy didn’t face many of the same electoral pressures as many of his colleagues. In the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning study “Profiles in Courage,” Ted Kennedy’s brother, and president to be, John F. Kennedy, quoted an old senatorial anecdote wherein one senator says to another, “The great trouble with you is that you refuse to be a demagogue. You will not submerge your principles in order to get yourself elected. You must learn that there are times when a man in public life is compelled to rise above his principles.”

Ted Kennedy never felt compelled to rise above his political principles. This steadfastness on his core issues, his real dedication to minorities, to children, and to the poor, more than earned him the moniker “The Liberal Lion.”

Not for him the halfhearted commitments and wavering allegiance that the mid-century political columnist and New Republic founder Walter Lippmann derided when he declared that for most politicians “The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular – not whether it will work well and prove itself, but whether the active-talking constituents like it immediately.”

Perhaps, though, the most astonishing thing about Ted Kennedy was not his liberal convictions, but how he put them in action. A liberal alone atop the mountain is a fine thing, but Ted Kennedy spent the span of his career finding ways to accomplish his goals. In “Profiles in Courage,” JFK, then a senator himself, observes, “We should not be too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals” – there is courage too in compromising, as well as sticking to your guns, and Ted Kennedy knew both.