Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

Like so many Americans, I woke up completely heartbroken this morning to the news that Senator Ted Kennedy, standard-bearer for liberalism, Lion of the Senate, had passed away.

It's overwhelming to take in all that Kennedy did to fight for justice over nearly fifty years of service, all the ways in which he championed the cause of those without desks in the Senate chambers, all that legislation - an entire generation's worth of legislation - that bore his mark in some way.

More often than not, Kennedy served as a barometer for that single, highest measure of importance: are we treating others the way that we'd like to be treated? Are those who are ignored and forgotten helped by what we are doing? Are those who have been wronged a little more righted by our efforts? Is it enough? What more can we do?

Over the years, here on m-pyre and in a hundred conversations, Marjorie and Mikaela have lovingly teased me that my heroes tend to be dead white men. This is true to an extent, the reason being that our structure of government lies at the center of my own experience. (And that structure, as we know, has historically enabled one demographic more than others.) I've always felt strongly that there is a time and a place to work within that system, as flawed as it may be. Like it or not, it is the arena that translates activism into policy. If ground-up, community-based action is the heart of any movement (and I believe it is), we need instruments of change inside the power structure to harness that passion and translate it into law. Progress is easier when there are allies on the inside. And there was no stronger ally, or more knowledgeable figure about the legislative process, than Senator Kennedy.

I began here by pondering the overwhelming scope of Kennedy's legacy. So, too, is the thought of a future without him. I look around and don't see that new standard-bearer in wait. Paul Wellstone was taken away from us too soon. Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State. Barack Obama became President. Whereas Kennedy's failed bid for the presidency freed him to dedicate himself to the Senate, I fear that "ambition or bust" is more common today. We cannot all become a Lion of the Senate, after all. Nor should we. There can only be one.

I'm remembering this morning that voice looming over debates on the Senate floor. I'm thinking about my own lifetime of being invested in politics, as defined in large part by Senator Kennedy. I'm remembering working in politics in Massachusetts, and seeing the senior senator here, there, everywhere, his hands in everything that mattered. And since I'm traveling back anyway, I'm thinking too of that childhood concept wherein it's impossible to believe that certain people will ever leave this world, because they are in so many ways the center of it. That girl wishes beyond hope that Senator Kennedy could've lived forever.

From the greatest senator of our lifetime, his most quoted pronouncement:

"For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."