Lion of the liberals

Written by Bloomberg | Updated: Aug 28 2009, 03:16am hrs
Jonathan D Salant

Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the most influential senators in US history, has died. He was 77.

The trajectory of his public life had many dramatic swings, spanning the civil rights movement in the US to the election of the first black President. He gained entry into the Senate only because the seat opened up after his brother John was elected US President. A family friend, Benjamin Smith, temporarily filled the seat until the younger Kennedy was old enough to run. Once elected in 1962, he never left. Barack Obama, when running for President, called him a lion of the Senate when he received his endorsement.

President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and Senator Robert Kennedy of New York was shot moments after claiming victory in the California presidential primary in 1968. Ted Kennedy, the youngest of nine children and the last surviving brother, gained a bully pulpit that he took advantage of with his booming voice, soaring rhetoric and legislative acumen. His own bid for the nations highest office, challenging then-President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, failed. Over time, his political accomplishments in the Senate cemented his reputation as a lawmaker. Politically, he has towered over his time, Adam Clymer wrote in his 1999 biography of Kennedy.

Kennedys endorsement of Obama in January 2008 helped provide critical validation for the first-term senator, effectively conferring the family legacy to Obamas candidacy. I know what your support means, Obama told Kennedy. I know the cherished place the Kennedy family holds in the hearts of the American people.

He was the dominant congressional figure in shaping US healthcare, civil rights and education policy for decades, working to raise the minimum wage, overhaul immigration laws and allow 18-year-olds to vote. Former Senator Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat first elected with Kennedy in 1962, said his colleagues greatest legacy might have been his successful battles to remove obstacles to blacks who wanted to vote.

He showed how much could be done on Capitol Hill with great skill and political dexterity, said Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University. Kennedy wrote more than 2,500 bills throughout his more than 46 years in the Senate, with several hundred becoming law, and cast more than 15,000 votes. One of the great senators in American history, whose career has had more impact on our national life than some of our Presidents, historian Michael Beschloss said in describing Kennedy.

After his presidential campaign failed, Kennedy started to become a far more influential senator. He thwarted or reshaped some of the policies of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush even as he reached across party lines to work with Republicans on legislation. He joined President George W Bush in enacting the No Child Left Behind education law. He worked with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona to draft legislation that would have given undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Kennedy played an active diplomatic role with the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and Ireland. He supported airline deregulation and the denial of parole in federal prisons. He also opposed the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. He deserves recognition not just as the leading senator of his time, but as one of the greats in its history, wise in the workings of this singular institution, especially in its demand to be more than partisan to accomplish much, Clymer wrote.

Kennedys speeches often started calmly and ended with a high-volume, arm-waving, red-faced defence of programmes that benefited the disabled or poor. After his 1980 presidential campaign failed, he gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in New York. For all those whose cares have been our concern, he said, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Kennedy opposed Bushs war in Iraq from the beginning. He voted against the 2002 resolution allowing the president to use force, calling it the best vote he cast in the Senate Iraq is George Bushs Vietnam, Kennedy said. As with Vietnam, the only rational solution to the crisis is political, not military.

Besides the loss of two brothers to assassins bullets, Kennedy himself narrowly missed death in a 1964 plane crash. You go through something like that and you think the man upstairs had us in the palm of his hand and there is some unfinished business we need to take care of, said Bayh, who pulled Kennedy from the wreckage.