(Originally published at The Gay-Atheist.)
In 1957 a committee chaired by John F. Kennedy, then a member of the United States Senate, selected the five most outstanding senators in American history. They chose Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Robert Taft, and Robert La Follette Sr. Today there seems little doubt that eventually that list (which has been added to since) will include the name of John Kennedy’s youngest brother, who we all knew by his nickname, Ted.
Edward “Ted” Kennedy died late last night at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a year and three months after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He was the only son of Joseph Kennedy to die of natural causes. He served nearly forty-seven years in the Senate, in the same seat once occupied by his brother John. His long career was marked by triumph and scandal, but ultimately he was admired by colleagues of both major parties, including Republican Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch, and former president George W. Bush, for his intellect and his tenacity.
Elected the junior senator from Massachusetts in November 1962, Ted was presiding over the Senate a year later when an aide informed him that his brother, the president, had been shot in Dallas. In 1964 he was nearly killed when his private plane crashed in Southampton, Massachusetts. He returned to the Senate six months later a changed man. His long recovery from broken ribs and a punctured lung, and the chronic back pain that would remain with him for the rest of his life had given him a lasting passion for healthcare reform. In 1971 he became chairman of the Senate’s healthcare sub-committee, and helped write and pass the National Cancer Act of 1971. He first proposed a single-payer healthcare system during the Nixon administration. In 1985 he helped pass the COBRA Act, which extended employer-provided health benefits to employees after leaving a job. In 1990, inspired by his older sister Rosemary, who had suffered most of her life from the debilitating effects of a lobotomy, he saw the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Later that year he also helped to pass the Ryan White Care Act, which provided additional funds for the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients. To the last he was a vocal supporter of the Obama administration’s ongoing effort to reform healthcare.
And yet, though he was a man of great character, he was not always a man of good character. On July 18, 1969, after leaving a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, near Martha’s Vineyard, Ted drove his Oldsmobile 88 off a bridge. It came to rest upside-down in the channel below. Kennedy was able to escape and swim to shore. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, wasn’t so lucky. Kennedy claimed he called out for Kopechne several times, and attempted to swim back to the car, but was stopped by the strong tide. He returned to the site of the party and told two friends about the accident. Despite the advice of his friends, who also attempted to swim out to reach the submerged car, Ted did not report the accident to the authorities until after Kopechne’s body had been discovered the next morning. The diver who removed Kopechne from the car later testified that she had been positioned in the car just where an air bubble would have formed following the crash, indicating that she may have survived for several minutes after Kennedy swam to shore. Had Kennedy reported the accident immediately (which he could have — the nearest house was only 150 yards away, though Ted claimed he saw no house with the lights on during his walk back to the party), Kopechne may have survived.
Kennedy pled guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury, and was given a sentence of two months in prison, which was suspended by the judge. Ted called his failure to report the accident “indefensible,” and despite escaping serious punishment, questions about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and his actions on that night would haunt him for the rest of his life. He returned to work and remained a force in the Senate, but never fully emerged from the shadow of Chappaquiddick. The accident was cited often by Kennedy’s detractors in the 1990s, when he acquired a reputation as a drinker and a womanizer. Parody songs making light of Ted’s well-known vices and personal troubles became a genre unto themselves on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. I confess to laughing at “The Philanderer” as a teenager.
Despite his shortcomings, Kennedy will be remembered more for his accomplishments as a legislator. Despite his often questionable personal conduct, it seems obvious to me that he did far more good than bad in his long career. He was a committed champion of the poor, the weak, the unrepresented. Besides his repeated efforts at healthcare reform, he was also an early supporter of gay rights, and a reliable voice in favor of female equality. As Rick wrote today at Bent Corner, “though he was born into one of the richest and most powerful families in America, he worked tirelessly in the U.S. Senate on the behalf of the less fortunate.” An outspoken and committed liberal Democrat, he proved himself willing to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans to craft legislation, even during periods of strident partisanship. As a result, over 300 bills he helped to write have become law.
The news reader on CNN Radio this morning put it best. Echoing the telegram sent by a son of Theodore Roosevelt to his brothers after the death of their father, the headline was simply “The lion of the Senate is dead.”