On the night Martin Luther King was shot, Robert Kennedy calmed an Indianapolis crowd by quoting from the Chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
The Chorus’ words echoed throughout the life of Ted Kennedy whose glories were matched by its tragedies. Yet after each tragedy, Teddy rode to carry the mantle left by his brothers to “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Two generations ago, Sen. Kennedy quoted his fallen brother that “[f]ew will have the greatness to bend history itself,” but the arch of American history since that time clearly bears his name. Sen. Kennedy built a record of legislative achievement unmatched in our history, as he co-sponsored over 500 public laws (often working with Republicans despite his status as the GOP’s official punching bag) and has had more impact on the lives of Americans than most of the nine presidents he has served under.
But it has been health care that has defined his career and drove his decision to challenge President Carter for the Democratic Party nomination in 1980. Today 20 million low-income Americans receive access to quality primary care at community health centers; seven million receive health insurance after losing their job through COBRA; 25 million who change jobs will be protected from losing their health insurance due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act; 11 million children will be covered under the Children’s Health Insurance Program; 500,000 HIV/AIDS patients will receive medical care under the Ryan White CARE Act; and more than 60 million workers have been able to take time off from work to care for a loved one or get medical care under the Family & Medical Leave Act all thanks to the Senate’s last lion.
Sadly, his heroic heart gave way before he could see his dream of an America where “the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.” His death should give the Democrats a renewed sense of purpose to fulfill this dream.
The senator’s death should not just be an impetus to renewed debate on health care, however, but an impetus to renew our entire political debate. As I wrote last summer, when the senator’s diagnosis was announced, his passing would also mark the end of an age of giants who had made the nation what it is today. This age has given way to our current era of sound bite politics which has left us few leaders with the boldness to appeal to our better selves to build a better nation for all Americans.
It is hard to imagine this today, as some on the right wasted little time before using the senator’s death as a platform to spew hate, but it was a Republican who gave the eulogy for President Kennedy. He could have been speaking about the past month of vitriol when he condemned the fanaticism, hatred and “false accusations that divide us.”
One of Kennedy’s best friends in the Senate was conservative Orrin Hatch, who had come to Washington with the intention of ushering liberals like Kennedy out. At Kennedy’s 70th birthday party, Hatch not only conceded defeat but added that “I have come to appreciate that the country is better for it.” In mourning his friend, Hatch expressed concern that Washington has become “too bitterly partisan” and hoped that “America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility … [as] we must realize that in the end, we have to put aside political pandering, work together and do what is best for America.”
As Robert Kennedy said that fateful night in Indianapolis, “[w]hat we need in the United States is not division [and] hatred … but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.” That is the legacy of Camelot whose chapter in American history came to a sad close this week.
In concluding his brother’s eulogy, Sen. Kennedy said simply what many of us would say of him today: “[t]hose of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.”
The Senate’s last lion roars no more, but “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Bennet Kelley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.