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.
And nothing — nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight.
I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals, and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States.
As I look ahead, I am strengthened by family and friendship. So many of you have been with me in the happiest days and the hardest days. Together we have known success and seen setbacks, victory and defeat.
But we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world. And I pledge to you — I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the United States Senate when we begin the great test.
Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.
For me this is a season of hope — new hope for a justice and fair prosperity for the many, and not just for the few — new hope.
And this is the cause of my life — new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege.
We can meet these challenges with Barack Obama. Yes, we can, and finally, yes, we will.
Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race and gender and group against group and straight against gay.
And Barack Obama will be a commander in chief who understands that young Americans in uniform must never be committed to a mistake, but always for a mission worthy of their bravery.
We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavor, but when John Kennedy called of going to the moon, he didn’t say it’s too far to get there. We shouldn’t even try.
Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon.
Yes, we are all Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.
There is a new wave of change all around us, and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination — not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation.
And this November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.
There were as many tears as there were cheers when Kennedy finished speaking.
The delegates knew it was the last time that the man who had called Democrats to arms at their conventions for 40 years would address the faithful.
They knew when Kennedy said “the dream lives on” that they, now, would have to keep it alive.
Kennedy’s faith in Obama did not waver, even as the new generation president seemed to struggle to keep the torch aloft.
He believed, after long talks with the young senator, candidate and president, that Obama has set his compass true.
Kennedy also knew, from long and often painful personal and political experience, that merely knowing the direction in which one wants to take the country is insufficient to get it there.
He recognized that Obama had inherited crises and challenges that would not be easily dispatched. But he also held out the hope — stated at the 2008 convention — “that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”
Obama would do well as he celebrates Kennedy’s legacy — and their own deep connection — to seize upon those words.
The great gap in the healthcare debate has, to this point, been one of presidential passion.
Obama has been too cautious, too technical.
Now, he can, he must, echo Kennedy’s faith that “every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”
Healthcare as a fundamental right, not a privilege. That’s the starting point for a renewed debate about reform.
Indeed, once Obama embraces specific legislation, he should — so long as it is bold enough to merit the moniker — dub the bill: “The Senator Edward M. Kennedy Health Care Reform Act of 2009.”