I was writing this column when I heard of Senator Kennedy’s death.
I am heartbroken.
For more than five decades, my father William vanden Heuvel was a close friend and political ally of Kennedy’s. When I called him this morning he had been weeping. He’d just seen the footage on CNN of Kennedy’s extraordinarily emotional visit to Ireland, one year after his brother John’s assassination. My father traveled with Kennedy on that trip, as he would on many others in the years to follow. He also shared memories of sailing trips on the coast of Maine, and the good times, and tough times, and the campaigns waged and won.
My father told me he was supposed to be on the small plane that crashed and nearly killed Kennedy in 1964; but what with Bobby running for the New York Senate that year, my father went to campaign for Teddy’s older brother. He spent the next year shuttling to the Massachusetts hospital to visit Teddy, who was strapped down on a gurney to avoid paralysis.
My father wrote many speeches for Kennedy, and informed many others,including the eloquent and impassioned statements Kennedy made opposing the war in Iraq. Vietnam was never far from Kennedy’s mind or the memories of those — like my father — who had served in President Kennedy’s administration and watched Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society destroyed.
When Kennedy was deciding whether to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president, he took counsel with friends and advisers, including my father.
Senator Kennedy was a fighting liberal; a passionate and exuberant lion to the very end — often among timid cubs. He will be remembered as the best and most effective Senator of the last century. Kennedy helped shape every major piece of legislation, with his powerful commitment to civil rights, labor rights, and women’s rights — always fighting for equality, always standing with the underdog, the poor, the most vulnerable, who he believed deserved lives of dignity.
Kennedy’s final fight was for quality, affordable healthcare for all. As recently as July, he called that fight "
Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s presidency so far, he is one of the few reform presidents in modern history — a potential Senator Kennedy recognized when he endorsed his candidacy. A reform President takes on the status quo in order to improve the lives of the majority and ensure that America lives up to it’s potential and promise. Franklin Roosevelt was the very model of a reform President. Lyndon Johnson, in a sense, was pushed to become a reformer by the turbulence of the times.
When a reform President takes on the status quo he confronts a ferocious, well-organized, reactionary opposition. What we’re seeing today — with right wing groups comparing Obama to Hitler and healthcare reform to socialism–Roosevelt faced with the American Liberty League calling him a socialist or a fascist (ironic, since it was Roosevelt who led the US into war against fascism). Like Obama, Roosevelt also confronted well-funded business lobbies. And in the Catholic demagogue Father Coughlin, Roosevelt had his Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck in a Roman collar.