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The Senate's Fighting Liberal | The Nation

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The Senate's Fighting Liberal

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AP ImagesSen. Kennedy at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver.

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away after a long battle with brain cancer on August 25, 2009. This 2002 profile by the late Jack Newfield captures the essence of what this legend meant to the progressive movement.

When Ted Kennedy arrived in Washington at the close of 1962 as the freshman senator from Massachusetts, he was welcomed with derision and low expectations. Just 30 years old, the President's kid brother, he had accomplished nothing in his life to earn the prize of a seat in the US Senate. Most pundits saw him as a dummy who had cheated on an exam at Harvard to stay eligible for football and who was dependent on an excellent staff to compensate for his inexperience.

Now, forty years later, Ted Kennedy looks like the best and most effective senator of the past hundred years. He has followed the counsel of his first Senate tutor, Phil Hart of Michigan, who told him you can accomplish anything in Washington if you give others the credit. Kennedy has drafted and shaped more landmark legislation than liberal giants like Robert Wagner, Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver and Herbert Lehmann. He has survived tragedy and scandal, endured presidential defeat, right-wing demonization, ridicule by TV comics. Now, at 70, he has evolved into a joyous Job. His career has become an atonement for one night of indefensible behavior, when he failed to report the fatal 1969 accident in which he drove off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, leaving a young woman to drown in the car. He has converted persistence into redemption.

In 1985 Kennedy forever renounced seeking the presidency, declaring, "The pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is." By abandoning higher ambition, he found a form of liberation. He had nothing left to lose. The weight of the country's--and his family's--expectations was lifted from his shoulders. His motives were perceived as less calculating and self-aggrandizing. He could settle into the Senate for the long march. He could become a patient and disciplined legislator without feeling like a failure. When the GOP won control of the Senate in 1994 and some Democrats, like George Mitchell, quit after losing their leadership posts and committee chairmanships, Kennedy stayed and fought in the trenches.

Now, as the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and as the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, he is at the center of the action. Soon his domestic economic priorities, which were on the front burner prior to September 11--raising the minimum wage, enacting a patients' bill of rights, creating jobs and "passing national health insurance, bit by bit"--will come around again.

Kennedy's zeal to "get something done," and his aisle-crossing friendships with Republicans, have led him into a puzzling, limited partnership with President Bush. They negotiated the details of the education bill together and are now talking about a compromise on the patients' bill of rights.

"I like Bush, personally," Kennedy told me in December. "He has an excellent sense of humor, and I can communicate with him. He's a skilled politician. I would say we are professional friends." The two dynasts also privately share a feeling of having had their intelligence underestimated.

Bush has gone out of his way to court Kennedy, recognizing his power in the divided Senate. Bush named the Justice Department building for Robert Kennedy last November, despite opposition by conservative Republicans in the House. And on the day the education bill was signed, Bush told the crowd at a rally in Boston that Kennedy had been with Laura Bush when the first word of the September 11 terrorist attacks arrived; he thanked Kennedy for "providing such comfort to Laura during an incredibly tough time.... So, Mr. Senator, not only are you a good senator, you're a good man."

Kennedy thought he got more than half of what he wanted in the education bill when it was announced and celebrated. But five weeks later, when the devilish details of Bush's budget request to Congress were disclosed, Kennedy felt betrayed. Money promised to repair dilapidated schools and reduce class size in poor districts was not actually in the budget.

Fortunately for Kennedy's progressive pedigree, he had not pulled his punches in criticizing Bush on domestic issues during the prolonged education negotiations. Kennedy vigorously opposed John Ashcroft's nomination, attacked secret military tribunals for resident aliens and helped defeat Bush's economic stimulus package, which was biased in favor of the rich. He has forged a Democratic consensus behind a bill protecting pensions, a rival to Bush's.

Kennedy and his allies will try to increase spending on education above what Bush allocated. From 1996 through 2002, federal outlays for education expanded an average of 13.4 percent a year; Bush has now proposed a minuscule increase of 2.8 percent for 2003. "The President's budget fails to provide resources that were agreed to," Kennedy said. Today, Kennedy is more skeptical about Bush's intentions, calling his budget "a severe blow to the nation's schools." But he says he will attempt to "pry him away from the far right on some limited issues."

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