The End of Camelot

By Jim Cullen

Ted Kennedy was a tragic hero with a personal story that was worthy of Shakespeare. Three older brothers died violently in the service of their country, one during World War II and two from the bullets of assassins, but the kid brother stepped up to win election to Jack’s Senate seat in 1962. He worked hard and exceeded expectations in his first few years in the Senate, even after brother Jack’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Ted continued to take a back seat to brother Bobby, who was elected to the Senate from New York in 1964 and ran for president in 1968, only to be cut down by an assassin in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, just a few hours after he won the California primary. A year later, on July 18, 1969, after a party with some of Bobby’s former campaign staff, Ted was driving with one of Bobby’s former aides, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, when Kennedy drove off a bridge into an inlet on Chappaquidick Island. Kennedy saved himself and left the scene with Kopechne still in the submerged car, not notifying authorities of the accident until the following day. He pleaded guilty a week later to leaving the scene of an accident and a two-month jail sentence was suspended. He easily won re-election in 1970, and although he lost his leadership position as majority whip, he rededicated himself to working on social issues.

As Jack Newfield wrote for The Nation in 2002, “His career has become an atonement for one night of indefensible behavior ...” Kennedy played a leading role with Jacob Javits in passing the National Cancer Act of 1971. He worked with the Nixon administration in an attempt to pass a national health insurance program. He was a key backer of Title IX, the 1972 measure that required colleges to provide equal funding for women’s sports. He pushed campaign finance reform and was a leading force behind passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, which set contribution limits and established public financing for presidential elections. He finally ran for president, in the Democratic primary against Jimmy Carter in 1980, but his heart did not seem to be in it, as Carter won renomination only to be defeated by Ronald Reagan. Again Kennedy returned to the Senate as ranking member of the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, where he supported women’s issues and gay rights, helped block some of the legislative priorities of the Reagan administration and promoted the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and funding for AIDS treatment. Kennedy worked to expand the voting franchise to 18-year-olds; the $24 billion Kennedy-Hatch law of 1997, which provided health insurance to children with a new tax on tobacco; two increases in the minimum wage; the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which made health insurance portable for workers; the 1988 law that allocated $1.2 billion for AIDS testing, treatment and research; the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act; and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.

In the Bush II administration, Kennedy negotiated the No Child Left Behind Act with President Bush and his staff in 2001 as an educational reform, only to see Bush renege on providing the money to implement it. He tried to work with the Bush administration on the bill to extend Medicare to cover prescription drugs, but turned against the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act when Republicans turned it into a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies. He worked with Sen. John McCain in an attempt to reform immigration laws, but the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was blocked by a filibuster. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2008 but after surgery and followup treatments made a surprise return to the Senate on July 9, 2008, to break a filibuster against a bill to preserve Medicare fees for physicians.

As Barack Obama took office, Kennedy dropped his seat on the Judiciary Committee to devote all his attention to healthcare reform, which he regarded as “the cause of my life.” From his home in Massachusetts, he continued to work with Sen. Chris Dodd and other Senate leaders to develop the healthcare bill that was approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in July with no Republican support, while Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus continued to negotiate with Republicans on weaker versions of health reform.

During his 47 years as senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy earned the reputation as the liberal lion of the Senate. Some people have been unable to forgive that he was born into wealth and privilege. Others have been unable to forgive that he left Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in his car. Others cannot forgive that he was an unrepentant liberal. But many millions more, from every walk of life, respected and loved Ted Kennedy and they honor his memory for picking up the torch of New Deal liberalism from Jack and Bobby and carrying it during the dark days of Reaganism and Bush I and II.

One year ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Kennedy passed the torch to Barack Obama. Now it’s up to Obama and a new generation of leaders to pick up that torch and enact Kennedy’s dying dream, a national healthcare program that will provide every American with “decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”

Share memories and express condolences at Kennedy’s website,

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2009

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