Ted Kennedy led an epic life that defined American politics and policy-making across much of the latter half of the 20th century. Indeed, Kennedy was so much a part of our public life that his death, shortly before midnight Tuesday, made one last and remarkable historic connection — a connection that reminds us of the importance of extending his legacy into the 21st century.
Kennedy’s passing came on the one year anniversary of his surprise speech to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where the liberal icon of the Democratic Party completed his mission of securing the presidential nomination for a young man named Barack Obama.
Fearful of the centrism of the Clintons, Kennedy had resisted the rush to embrace the front-runner candidacy of New York Senator Hillary Clinton and instead backed the insurgent candidacy of the freshman senator from Illinois.
Like Kennedy, Obama has opposed the rush to war in Iraq, while Clinton had approved authorizing George Bush to order the invasion and occupation of that Middle East land.
More significantly, Kennedy saw in the former community organizer, civil rights lawyer and constitutional law professor someone who might renew the liberal vision he had sought since at least 1980 to reassert as the central theme of Democratic politics.
Kennedy’s support of Obama served as a counterbalance to that of former President Bill Clinton for his wife’s candidacy.
It may be true that Obama could have won the Democratic nomination without Kennedy.
But it would have been much harder.
And Obama knew this — as did his supporters.
So it was that Kennedy’s appearance in Denver — barely three months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer — electrified the convention.
Kennedy linked all of the Democratic desires that went into the Obama campaign’s “hope” and “change” message — sounding antiwar themes, mentioning the struggle for gay and lesbian rights (as he, to a greater extent than any senior figure in the party, always did), recalling civil rights and womens’ rights commitments, reasserting the party’s faith in economic justice and renewing the drive for universal healthcare.
Here is what Kennedy said that night:
My fellow Democrats, my fellow Americans, it is so wonderful to be here.