- Special Sections
- Public Notices
The death of Senator Edward Kennedy, however not unexpected, has nonetheless left many of us with the familiar feeling that all our best heroes are dead or dying.
As one friend of mine put it when we were discussing his death last week, it seems that all of our lives we’ve been burying Kennedys. It’s been possible to feel, sometimes, that with each death we’ve lost a lot of our hopes for the country and the world. But that’s not what any of the Kennedy brothers would have wanted.
Ted was simply the one allowed to live out his life to the fullest, and cursed with competing against brothers who had died in relative youth, men who left images that to some degree were mired in myths and legends with which he couldn’t possible compete.
All that stuff about “carrying the torch” of Camelot, or of his other brother Robert, must have been a severe burden to Ted Kennedy. Yet in many ways, he not only rose to the challenge but may have left a more significant record of historical achievement than either of his brothers.
On every major issue of his generation, from civil rights to health care to foreign policy and war, Ted Kennedy got it right and got the laws passed to fix it. What passes for a “social safety net” in this country, such programs as Medicare and Medicaid, are there because he helped put them there.
On health care in particular - what Kennedy called “the cause of his life” - no one has done more to advance the goal of universal health care in America than him. He opposed both the tragic Vietnam War and the useless war in Iraq. He fought hard for liberal values even in the conservative era of Ronald Reagan, refusing to trade in his principles for what was temporarily popular.
Kennedy was a hero to liberals because he knew that for all its greatness, the reality of America is that justice, freedom and economic opportunities are often kept from our neediest citizens because of race, gender or something as simple as being born into poverty.
Unlike conservatives, who seem to believe that all America should do is set up capitalism, give everybody a gun, don’t tax the churches, and everything else takes care of itself, liberals know that making our country better is always a work in progress. To ensure this, the central government must often take the lead, such as it has been in civil rights and health care.
Ted Kennedy lived and legislated that philosophy. He and his brothers before him understood that idealism can spur a nation to greatness. John F. Kennedy said we should put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s; even after his death, that goal led us to the 1969 moon landing. Bobby Kennedy appealed to a people’s conscience, and asked us how we could justify war, racism and poverty.
I have my own memories of Ted Kennedy. I was in the audience at Liberty University when he spoke there in 1983. It was great to be one of about a dozen people applauding his speech, and enduring the stares of the young “Christian conservatives” who had come to see the liberal curiosity. I trust they noticed the lack of horns.
The story of the Kennedy family is a unique American story that embodies the best hopes and idealism that this country has produced. If that story is truly over, then we really have lost something irreplaceable in our national life. Let’s just hope we can learn the right lessons from it.
* * * * *
Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.