I grew up in New York City during the ’60′s. It’s a town and a state well known for its charismatic, brilliant legislators and states people — Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Wagner, John V. Lindsay, William F. Buckley, Mario Cuomo. Even so, Ted Kennedy was always on my radar screen.
When I was three he was tossed out of Harvard for cheating on a Spanish test, later re-enrolled and graduated in 1956. When I was 11, he broke his back in a plane crash, was bedridden and in traction for six months and wore a back brace for a long time.
Two of his brothers were assassinated and his oldest brother killed in WWII. He would be the only Kennedy brother to survive to old age.
When I was a 16-year old in 1969, he was under the spotlight for involvement in the vehicular death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, at the time an event more shameful, cowardly, and scandalous than any other except for Watergate. Ten years later he was a failed Presidential candidate.
His personal life was messy until he remarried in the 1990′s and included struggles with alcohol, weight and rumors of womanizing. His young son, Teddy would have to have his leg amputated because of bone cancer. And then he developed brain cancer in 2008.
Can greatly flawed men become great? Someone said, that’s the only type of great man there is. That Senator Kennedy could rise from these extreme lows to become one of the greatest if not the greatest legislator of the 20th century speaks of his resilience, his strength and his fighting spirit.
Senator Kennedy’s life is a lesson in greatness and illustrates that great men don’t become great through perfection. They are flawed and imperfect. They give up large dreams. And in surrendering, they attain even greater dreams.
Adversity in his personal and in his family’s life did not stop him serving the American people. From 1973 to 2009, 522 of the thousands of items he co-sponsored became public law. Among the highlights that he led or championed:
- Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act of 1986
- One of the chief sponsors of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
- 1971 Federal Funding Stream to Feed the Elderly, Support Women and Children
- 1972 Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC)
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act of 1993
- legislation passed in 1971 that quadrupled the amount of funding for cancer research and prevention
- 1992 Mammography Quality Standards Act
- Bill that gives Food & Drug Administration (FDA) power to regulate tobacco products
- Medical Device Amendments of 1976, which provided comprehensive regulation of medical
devices for the first time ever
- Strong advocate for strengthening FDA review and oversight of drugs and biologics.
- Co-sponsored legislation assuring individuals living with mental health and substance abuse issues that their mental health benefit would be treated equally with the medical-surgical benefit regarding treatment limitations and financial requirements.
- In 1970 during the Vietnam War, key sponsor of the statute that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18
- Sought to abolish the Poll Tax
- Chief sponsor of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982
- Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988
- passed amendments to extend the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to include people with disabilities and families with children.
- Chief sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that provided punitive and compensatory damages in cases of intentional job discrimination
- In 2007, he helped lead the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act to passage in the Senate.
- Initiated the Immigration Act of 1965. It was a turning point in American immigration policy reforming immigrant selection criteria, and ending the selection of immigrants on the basis of their national origin that began in 1924 – a system that discriminated on the basis of race or ancestry.
- Helped establish OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Authored the Refugee Act of 1980 which established a comprehensive U.S. policy to provide humanitarian assistance, admission and resettlement to refugees around the world
- Original sponsor of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and its re-authorization in 2000, which allows battered immigrant women and children to apply for permanent residence without the cooperation of their abusive spouses or parents
- Introduced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which became law in 1978 and regulates the use of electronic surveillance for national security purposes. Led the fight against abuses by the Bush administration
- Every major education law passed since the 1960s has borne Kennedy’s imprint, from Head Start to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
- In 2007 passed the College Cost Reduction Act. The bill authorized a $23 billion increase in student aid, the largest since the GI Bill.
- More than 30 years ago he cosponsored the first law to establish fuel economy standards (1)
You get the picture, and this is just a small corner of it. He was a master at compromise, working with opponents, and the art of the deal. He attracted some of the most talented staff on Capitol Hill.
He opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, which would have been a huge potential setback to the freedoms we enjoy today. Mr. Bork’s “extremist view of the Constitution,” he said, meant that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of Americans.”(2)
And not least of all, He endorsed the candidacy of then Senator Barack Obama to the Presidency.
“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….He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past,” Mr. Kennedy said at an Obama rally in Washington on Jan. 28, 2008. “He is a leader who sees the world clearly, without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view.”(2)
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Senator Ted Kennedy has helped to write history. He served in the U.S. Senate all but 10 years of my small life. His legacy equals, if not surpasses that of his presidential brother John. The Kennedy legacy, and Senator Ted Kennedy’s is writ large in my life. He will be greatly missed.