The Senate's Fighting Liberal
Personal tragedy often provides the most powerful training in empathy and compassion. Ted Kennedy has buried two assassinated brothers he loved, a brother-in-law (Steve Smith) who became like a brother to him, and three young nephews, including John Kennedy Jr., whom he eulogized as another Kennedy who did not live long enough "to comb gray hair." While Kennedy was still a teenager, his older siblings, Joe and Kathleen, died. And his son survived cancer.
Kennedy has acquired both a tragic sense of life and what the late Murray Kempton called "losing-side consciousness." He identifies with hurt and loss. And he is able to translate his empathy into public remedies and reforms. I realized this when I asked him to tell me the story behind his eight-year campaign to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law he co-sponsored and managed on the Senate floor.
"In 1974," Kennedy began, "I spent every Friday in the waiting room at Boston's Children's Hospital with my son, Teddy Jr. He was getting experimental chemotherapy treatments. And other parents started coming up to me and telling me how they had lost their jobs because they were taking care of a child diagnosed with cancer, and missing work.
"That was the origin of it. Nobody should lose a job because of a family medical emergency. I didn't lose my job because my priorities were with my son. I just told Mike Mansfield [the Democratic leader in the Senate] that I couldn't be there on Fridays. But less fortunate fathers lost their jobs because they couldn't get a leave from their employer."
Kennedy drafted a bill with Senator Chris Dodd that granted up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a family medical crisis, protecting the job security of all workers with more than one year on the job. The Kennedy-Dodd bill was originally introduced in 1985 and passed the Congress in 1991, but it was vetoed by Bush the Elder. It was passed again in 1993 and signed by President Clinton. But it was conceived in those painful conversations with other desperate parents in the waiting room of the Children's Hospital in 1974.
Because of his personal experience of tragedy, Ted Kennedy has become America's national grief counselor. When the two planes were hijacked out of Boston's Logan Airport last September 11 and ninety-three residents of Massachusetts were killed, Kennedy personally called about 125 family members to offer assistance and solace.
He was so moved by one conversation with a grieving father that he sent the man a copy of a private letter his own father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, had written to a close friend in 1958, upon hearing about the death of the friend's son.
Ted Kennedy's ability to get up every morning and just keep going, no matter what, is his defining quality. And this quotation of consolation from his father sheds some light on Kennedy's credo of perseverance. The letter says:
When one of your loved ones goes out of your life, you think of what he might have done for a few more years, and you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours.
Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it, trying to accomplish something--something he did not have time to do. And, perhaps, that is the reason for it all. I hope so.