Robert Scheer is the editor of Truthdig, where this article originally appeared. His latest book is The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (Twelve).
The light has gone out, and with it that infectious warm laugh and intensely progressive commitment of the best of the Kennedys. Not, at this point, to take anything away from the memory of his siblings–Bobby, whom I also got to know, was pretty terrific in his last years–but Senator Ted Kennedy was the real deal.
Unable to move with his brothers’ intellectual alacrity, sometimes plodding in impromptu expression but smooth and skillful while reading from a script, the youngest Kennedy made up for his shortcomings early in his Senate career by resolutely working the substance of issues. His principled determination, plus his capacity to truly care about the real-world outcomes of legislation for ordinary people rather than its impact on his or anyone else’s election, became his signature qualities as a lawmaker. But for those same reasons, he also wanted legislation passed, and his ability to work with the opposition, as he did three years ago with John McCain on immigration reform, now grants him a legacy as one of the nation’s great senators.
Oddly enough, for one born into such immense familial expectations, he was a surprisingly accessible and down-to-earth politician in the eyes of most journalists who covered him. I think of him as always authentic and never oily. As opposed to most politicians, the offstage Ted Kennedy was the more appealing one.
Although he excelled as an orator, never more so than delivering the speech that Bob Shrum crafted for him at the 1980 Democratic Convention but which was informed by Kennedy’s own deeply felt passion, it was in his less choreographed moments that he was at his best. I spent quite a few hours over the years interviewing him on subjects ranging from health care to nuclear arms control, mostly as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and while his grammar could be troubling, his sentiments never were.
Not once in those interviews did I find Kennedy to equivocate or slide into the amoral triangulation that defines almost all successful politicians. They position themselves, but he took positions, and as in the case of health care reform, he would end his life fighting for those causes with his last breath.