It's not often that death comes when all of one's life's work is completed and all loose ends accounted for.
That's certainly true for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died late Tuesday at age 77, of the brain cancer he was diagnosed with a year ago. But we can take solace in the fact that, even in the waning year of his life, Kennedy accomplished important things. Indeed, even in death, this greatest legislator of his time may yet help influence his largest goal left undone: health care reform.
The liberal lion of the Senate was the last of Camelot, the great Kennedy generation that so influenced the last half of the 20th century. Indeed, Kennedy died only weeks after his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. We may well never see such a celebrated and paramount political dynasty of presidents and senators again.
Kennedy seemed to understand that his family's greatness belonged to the 20th century, not the 21st. The Kennedy mystique had already begun to wane in recent years, and could have only eventually faded completely from benign neglect.
Ted Kennedy, though, was not so passive. He and his family saw, in the young Barack Obama, many of the ideals and leadership qualities once admired in President John F. Kennedy. We live in an age when most political endorsements don't mean much anymore. But Ted Kennedy used what luster remained of the Kennedy name to embrace Obama right at the moment Obama needed momentum to carry him past rival Hillary Clinton to clinch the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.
In turn, by not just letting time and events unfold past his family, by being proactive and taking such a vital role in a passing of the torch, Ted Kennedy assured that the Kennedy flame would not just die out in the 21st century, eventually to be forgotten. Rather, that act ensures the Kennedy legend will always be brightened by the happy amber glow of memory. Camelot will live forever as the vital heart of 20th century history.
That Kennedy, the senior senator from Massachusetts, died as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee seems altogether appropriate, for those issues are the core of what animated him. Certainly, the acronym by which the panel is known, the HELP Committee, neatly sums up what Kennedy was about in his more than 40 years of service.
Yet, Kennedy died before seeing final resolution to what was perhaps his largest issue: health care, but perhaps the death of this consummate deal maker may help influence passage of the comprehensive health care reform he so wanted.
To be sure, the angry throngs who are storming health care town hall meetings are not likely to much mourn Kennedy's passing, but within the Senate itself, some residue of Kennedy's relations with his colleagues may yet carry weight in shaping the chamber's reform package. Kennedy was well-known for his penchant for reaching across the aisle. His repeated legislative partnerships with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch made the two a famous political odd couple, but Hatch was not the only Republican with whom Kennedy was close.
Indeed, just last year when Kennedy rose from his sickbed to come to the Senate to cast a vote against Medicare cuts, senators of both parties were so moved that some changed their votes, giving the measure a veto-proof majority against President George W. Bush.
If some senators feel a bit of that old tug as they return to finish their health care work, even amidst the bitter partisanship the matter has created, then perhaps Kennedy will be smiling somewhere.
Other than that, as Kennedy himself has said, "the work goes on … and the dream shall never die."