He lived an eventful life, full of grief and error and tragedy and love. He was the youngest of nine in a large, wealthy family, a pampered baby who grew up to be a very spoiled, undisciplined young man who achieved the near impossible task of getting kicked out of Harvard for cheating.
He was blessed with a father who worked tirelessly to acquire power for his sons. As a young man, Ted Kennedy did his best to destroy his career, but he was lucky enough to be able to eventually get his career on track, becoming one of the most influential senators in America.
His life was full of cancer as well. Cancer struck down the lion, but not after he worked tirelessly to help two of his children overcome cancer as well.
My most enduring memory of Ted Kennedy is from ten years ago. The body of his nephew, John Kennedy, Jr., had been found and a boat was waiting to take the Senator out to sea, where JFK, Jr.'s small aircraft had been located. My memory is from a video, taken from a plane hovering over the boat. The senator was rushing to get on the boat, rushing to the discovery of yet another dead Kennedy.
As the survivor, he'd assumed the responsibility for all those many Kennedy deaths and it was a responsibility he did not shirk. When JFK, Jr.'s remains were found, Ted Kennedy raced off to claim them.
If you've never experienced grief, you cannot understand how it undermines you. You cannot imagine how it wrecks rational thought, destroys stability. Kennedy lived in a minefield of death. A brother and a sister who died in plane crashes. Two brothers, assassinated. A nephew, dead of a drug overdose. Two nephews, dead as a result of accidents.
An endless list of personal tragedy that received full coverage from the media. A terrible burden for even the strongest man.
Of course, Kennedy is famous for running away from death as well. He carried the ghost of Mary Jo Kopechne with him until he died. He characterized his behavior at Chappaquiddick that night as "indefensible."
And it was.
But in the end, he faced the demons that could have destroyed him and soldiered on, a relentless advocate for the "common man." In the days of Reagan, when government was the source of all our ills, Ted Kennedy advocated for health care reform, an act that seemed insane at the time.
In his brilliant speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, he defined what American liberalism was, in the age of Reagan. It is fitting to end this tribute to the liberal lion with his own words from that iconographic speech. Here are some select quotes:
"My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans, I have come here tonight not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause.
I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice.
I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work...."
A little later, he defines the number one priority of our economic policy:
"Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation.
Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy.
Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.
These are not simplistic pledges. Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our Party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land.
We dare not forsake that tradition...."
He makes note of what we can learn from FDR:
"We must not permit the Republicans to seize and run on the slogans of prosperity. We heard the orators at their convention all trying to talk like Democrats. They proved that even Republican nominees can quote Franklin Roosevelt to their own purpose.
The Grand Old Party thinks it has found a great new trick, but 40 years ago an earlier generation of Republicans attempted the same trick. And Franklin Roosevelt himself replied,
'Most Republican leaders have bitterly fought and blocked the forward surge of average men and women in their pursuit of happiness. Let us not be deluded that overnight those leaders have suddenly become the friends of average men and women.'"
He discusses the task of leadership...
"It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference.
The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.
The demand of our people in 1980 is not for smaller government or bigger government but for better government. Some say that government is always bad and that spending for basic social programs is the root of our economic evils. But we reply: The present inflation and recession cost our economy 200 billion dollars a year. We reply: Inflation and unemployment are the biggest spenders of all.
The task of leadership in 1980 is not to parade scapegoats or to seek refuge in reaction, but to match our power to the possibilities of progress."
On the future of our economy...
"So this year let us offer new hope, new hope to an America uncertain about the present, but unsurpassed in its potential for the future.
To all those who are idle in the cities and industries of America let us provide new hope for the dignity of useful work. Democrats have always believed that a basic civil right of all Americans is that their right to earn their own way. The party of the people must always be the party of full employment.
To all those who doubt the future of our economy, let us provide new hope for the reindustrialization of America. And let our vision reach beyond the next election or the next year to a new generation of prosperity. If we could rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II, then surely we can reindustrialize our own nation and revive our inner cities in the 1980's."
On Reagan's tax cuts...
"The tax cut of our Republican opponents takes the name of tax reform in vain. It is a wonderfully Republican idea that would redistribute income in the wrong direction.
It's good news for any of you with incomes over 200,000 dollars a year. For the few of you, it offers a pot of gold worth 14,000 dollars. But the Republican tax cut is bad news for the middle income families. For the many of you, they plan a pittance of 200 dollars a year, and that is not what the Democratic Party means when we say tax reform.
The vast majority of Americans cannot afford this panacea from a Republican nominee who has denounced the progressive income tax as the invention of Karl Marx. I am afraid he has confused Karl Marx with Theodore Roosevelt that obscure Republican president who sought and fought for a tax system based on ability to pay. Theodore Roosevelt was not Karl Marx, and the Republican tax scheme is not tax reform."
His views on health care reform...
"Finally, we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must not surrender We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth."
In 1980, when Ted Kennedy spoke those words, he appeared Quixotic, a man tilting at windmills while riding directly into very powerful head winds. He had become a man completely removed from the political fashion of the time.
Nearly 30 years later, it is astonishing to see how prescient Kennedy was....
"I have seen too many, far too many working families desperate to protect the value of their wages from the ravages of inflation.
Yet I have also sensed a yearning for a new hope among the people in every state where I have been.
And I have felt it in their handshakes, I saw it in their faces, and I shall never forget the mothers who carried children to our rallies.
I shall always remember the elderly who have lived in an America of high purpose and who believe that it can all happen again.
Tonight, in their name, I have come here to speak for them. And for their sake, I ask you to stand with them. On their behalf I ask you to restate and reaffirm the timeless truth of our Party."
We still hope for a fair shake, a decent job and a future we can believe in. And on this day, when we acknowledge the loss of Ted Kennedy, it seems as good a time as ever to restate and reaffirm the timeless truth Kennedy spoke of in 1980...
"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."