By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Senator Ted Kennedy died exactly one year to the day after his powerful speech to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
There’d been a lot of speculation that Kennedy, too weak to travel, would address the convention by videotape. So when he walked out on stage in person, the crowd went wild. And Kennedy did not disappoint. He made an impassioned plea for Barack Obama, the candidate who would “close the book on the old politics of race and gender and group” — and then tied Obama’s success to the signature issue of his long career in the Senate.
“For me, this is a season of hope,” he told the delegates. “New hope … and this is the cause of my life … new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege. We can meet these challenges with Barack Obama. Yes, we can. And finally, yes, we will.” There was not a dry eye in the house.
However, it wasn’t until the next day, when I ran into his son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, that I learned the full significance of what we had witnessed. Patrick told me the story of how his father had arrived in Denver the day before his speech, only to be rushed to the hospital, suffering from kidney stones. He was still in his hospital bed the following afternoon, less than two hours from the scheduled time of his speech, and still in severe pain, when he insisted on being taken to the convention center. Once there, he was driven backstage in a golf cart, then walked to the podium and delivered what turned out to be his “Last Hurrah.”
To me, that story reveals the grit, determination, and inner strength that made Teddy Kennedy the best and strongest senator of our lifetime — and one of the greatest senators ever. He loved politics, and he was exactly what we would want every politician to be. Even Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander and John McCain agree with that assessment. But I can’t help but wonder: If they admire Kennedy so much, why don’t they act more like him?
Kennedy was one of the wealthiest members of the Senate. Yet, unlike his Republican colleagues, he didn’t spend his time defending tax cuts for the rich, loopholes for big corporations, or lack of regulation for Wall Street. Instead, he became the undisputed champion of the poor and working-class Americans. In his words, he spoke for “those who had no voice.”
A proud liberal, Kennedy personally led the fight for every important liberal cause: civil rights, environmental protection, workers’ rights, gay rights, minimum wage, education and immigration reform. He was one of the first to speak out against George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq, calling his vote against the Iraq war “the best vote I have cast in the United States Senate since I was elected in 1962.”
Kennedy was also one of the last great orators of the Senate. As befitting his reputation as the “Last Lion,” he didn’t just speak, he roared. But he didn’t just roar, either. He acted, piling up a legislative record second to none: more than 2,500 bills introduced, more than 300 signed into law. Even a partial list of his achievements shows the extraordinary range of Kennedy’s compassion and commitment: the Americans with Disabilities Act; the Ryan White AIDS Care Act; the State Children’s Health Insurance Program; the Mental Health Parity Act; the Civil Rights Act of 1991; the No Child Left Behind Act. When still a freshman senator, he was also given credit for enactment of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
But, more than any other issue, universal health care was the cause of his life. And it is in that battle where he is already so sorely missed. Had Kennedy been at the helm this year, there’s no doubt we’d already have health-care reform signed into law.
With his passing, there’s no better way for Democrats in Congress to honor his memory than to rename the legislation “Kennedycare,” forget about stick-in-the-mud Republicans, and pass universal health care legislation with the strong public plan option he championed. No more delay. It’s time to go out and “Win One for Teddy!”