This week it's become increasingly clear that Senator Edward Moore Kennedy may not be with us much longer. His absence from Washington during this critical time in health care reform, coupled with the death of his beloved sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, has made it apparent that the end is imminent. Before the pundits start their reminiscences and the country enters a protracted period of official mourning, there's still some work left for Congress to do before Teddy begins his next journey.
I'm a child of Massachusetts. I sat in front of the television with Mom and Dad when Jack became President. As a kid I remember the press conferences during the Cuban Missile Crisis and finally the coverage of our fallen President. There he was, in his march down the Avenue on that cold winter day, with Bobby and Jackie behind their fallen President. Young, handsome and incredibly charismatic Teddy Kennedy was embarking on his rendezvous with destiny. Not even 5 years after Jack Kennedy's death, Teddy would once again have to step up to the plate and lead his family in mourning with the death of Bobby. We had such dreams for Bobby. In 1968, Bobby was our last best hope when taken away from us by a bullet.
In that span between losses, Teddy became Senator from Massachusetts. He survived an airplane crash which left him in pain even today. But with all the personal losses, family tragedies and sacrifices, Teddy Kennedy persevered. The tabloids were rampant with pictures of Joan Kennedy wearing miniskirts to White House functions. There were the reports of drinking, womanizing and Chappaquiddick. Despite all the drama, the voters of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sent him back to do the people's work. The one hallmark issue of Teddy's career is health care:it is fitting that, in the winter of his Senatorial tenure, this debate is now front and center in the American agenda. And as he clings to life, Kennedy remains driven by the debate and frustrated by his inability to be on the Hill.
Conservative pundits can demonize him; label him a left wing liberal or whatever else they desire. The truth is that no Senator in the last 50 years has done more to foster a bipartisan dialog in the Senate. Teddy has never limited himself to Democratic friendship. He's crossed the divide and gained the respect of his Republican colleagues more often than not. In a speech at the Reagan Library in 2007, Kennedy characterized his relationship with Republican President Ronald Reagan."He was always a good friend and a gracious foe," Kennedy said. "He wanted to defeat his opponents, but not destroy them." In discussing the end of the Cold War, Kennedy made his point. "It had been waged as a bipartisan enterprise by Republican and Democratic Congresses and administrations from the first moment to the last."
In the next few weeks, many of you will learn a lot about Teddy Kennedy and his impact on the political stage. You'll hear anecdotes, personal stories and a lot of pundits debating his impact. But will we learn what's important? Teddy donated his Senate salary. Sure, he comes from a wealthy family. No doubt much of the Kennedy fortune may have had its roots in illegal activities. And as much as Teddy adored his father, he wasn't as ruthless as Joe Kennedy. There's always been an air of gentleness and humility about him, and it is quite clear that Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's commitment to public service rubbed off — especially on Teddy. For us in Massachusetts, it is a time for reflection, giving thanks and quiet trepidation as we actually consider who could replace him. I'd venture to guess that no politician will ever live up to the legend that is Ted Kennedy.
When news of Kennedy's brain cancer spread in Spring, 2008, Senator Robert Byrd, the most senior member of the Senate, was reduced to tears in a speech on the Senate floor. He wasn't the only one. Other Senators were grief stricken. Congressional staffers walked in disbelief — could it be that the Lion of the Senate would be no more? Throughout 2008, Kennedy made risky political decisions. He bestowed his blessing on Barack Obama, and the rest is history. When he collapsed at the luncheon following the Inauguration, the new President interrupted the celebration to tend to his friend and mentor. In his face you could see the anguish. Yet there were those of us who thought that Teddy's journey with America's destiny had been fulfilled with the election of the first African American President. We were wrong. He had work remaining.
I could cite one example after another, but I'll leave that to the journalists and pundits. While Teddy continues his battle, the state of the union weighs heavily upon him. After all that his family has sacrificed in service to this nation he deserves to rest — yet he prevails. This week the President and his family will be guests on Martha's Vineyard. Rumors run rampant that the President will travel to Hyannis to pay homage to the ailing Senator, health permitting. If that does occur, I'm certain that the President will deliver a message thanking him for his service on behalf of all of us . So, as you learn more about Teddy Kennedy the Senator over the next few months, ask yourself if you could have sacrificed half as much. While health care should be his legacy, I hope that Teddy's own words resonate above the hyperbole.
In delivering Bobby's Eulogy, Teddy said, "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it." Those words were spoken 41 years too soon, as they fit the man who delivered them. On August 18, 1980, Kennedy delivered an emotional speech before the Democratic Convention acknowledging his campaign for the Presidency was at an end. It was an emotional moment for Kennedy, the party and the nation. Last year, he gave what is conceivably the last speech he will ever deliver to the DNC. And those words which he so eloquently delivered 28 years previous were once repeated. "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."
Edward Moore Kennedy, Senator. Teddy Kennedy, husband, father, uncle, patriarch. Ted Kennedy, citizen of the United States. Regardless of our differences, we need to take a moment and remember all that he accomplished. And, as we experience this process where he slips away from us one final time, there is an opportunity for us to express our gratitude. Should the President meet the Senator this week, there will be nostalgia in the air within the Beltway. While the journalists won't say it openly, there will be a symbolic final passing of the torch. And in that passing Teddy needs to be reminded of his own words, "the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die." While he has many titles, the one which fits most is Edward Moore Kennedy — Public Servant.
Thank you, Teddy, from this member of the public you served.