A Fighter, and a Friend

Terrance Heath

Living in D.C., you can’t help; crossing paths with some famous political names. In fact, you get used to it. But, as with most things, you never forget your first. And Ted Kennedy was my first.

I was still new to D.C., having moved up from Georgia in the Summer of 1994 to work for the Human Rights Campaign. I was young and (still) idealistic, even two years into the Clinton administration. I’d volunteered for the Clinton campaign in college. On election night I hosted my friends in “a gathering of the cultural elite” to watch the election results come in. (Funny how old memes get recycled, isn’t it.) That night we watched the Reagan/Bush era end.

Two years later, I was in D.C., and working in politics. One of the issues I worked on was employment discrimination. The Employment Non-Dicsrimination Act, which scored a Senate hearing.

It was my first time on Capitol Hill, and my first time sitting in on a hearing, let alone being face to face with some names I’d only ever read about before. Our contingent got there early, in order to get places in the front of the line. The opposition was there, of course. I can’t remember, but I think they arrived after we were already in line. Again, I came face to face with people I’d only read about, but I would have preferred not to.

I heard a commotion behind me, turned around, and saw Ted Kennedy making his way down the line, shaking hands with the activists from our side. You’d have thought he was a rock star. And, in the realm of progressive politics, he is.

Celebrity magazines hail him as the last son from a glamorous but sorrow-tinged political family. Congressional insiders know that he also embraces his job wholeheartedly, working harder and longer hours than some younger colleagues, and hiring bright aides who often stay for years and are seen as role models by others.

Perhaps because it was impossible, Kennedy never tried to shake his image as a liberal titan to admirers and a left-wing caricature to detractors. But the supposed idealist became a pragmatic dealmaker, sometimes angering liberals by his willingness to bargain with Republicans to enact legislation he saw as less than perfect but attainable.

…Jim Manley, a former Kennedy aide, said that “despite coming from a family of great wealth and privilege, no one has been a more effective advocate for the poor and the middle class.” Manley said his former boss “has never been afraid to compromise in order to get things done.”

The list is long. In 1973, after the Watergate scandal, Kennedy co-sponsored the first bipartisan campaign finance bill. It established new contribution limits and a public financing provision for presidential elections.

Kennedy was instrumental in enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and many other health care initiatives.

He’s been described as a “liberal lion”, and that day I felt a surge of hopefulness because this man was on our side even though — because of his wealth and power — he didn’t have to be. In fact, doing so would probably make him a target for conservatives, much in the way his current illness has; as illustrated by Ben Shepard’s post on the response over at The Free Republic.

There’s much more behind that response, of course, a hatred for the man’s record and what he has and still does stand for; a record Mike Lux illustrated in his post.

Kennedy has been a player in literally every major progressive accomplishment of my life, usually a major player, quite often the leading player: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Legal Services, the War on Poverty, environmental legislation, OSHA, bringing down Richard Nixon on the Watergate investigations, ending the Vietnam War, stopping military aid to the Contras in Central America, the Martin Luther King holiday, stopping Robert Bork, the increases in the minimum wage, Family and Medical Leave, National Service, Motor Voter Act, S-CHIP. His fingerprints are on all of that legislation, and more. And even where he failed, on universal health care and labor law reform and stopping the Iraq war and other battles, he fought the good fight with passion and heart and courage. I hope like hell his fight is not ending, that he does not go gentle into that good night, because we need his passion and heart and courage in these cautious, careful times all the more.

I said a while ago that progressives see injustice and ask “Why?”, while conservatives see injustice and ask “Why not?”, if they question it at all. Senator Kennedy falls in to the first category. When I saw him coming down the line shaking hands, I thought to myself that this wealthy, heterosexual, white male certainly didn’t have to care about those of us standing in in line that day, for a hearing on a bill about our equality. He wouldn’t have suffered for not caring. But he did. He eventually came to me, shook my hand, and said a few words of encouragement before moving on.

If there is anyone whose career distills what being a progressive means to me — caring about and standing up for people and issues you don’t have to care about, that your circumstances don’t require you to care about — Ted Kennedy is such a person. His career in the Senate, and his political commitments are proof that one can be elite — born to privilege, wealth, and power — without being elitist. One simply has to care, as Ted Kennedy has and does. He could have spend most or all of his life coasting on the wealth, power, and influence of the Kennedy name. He chose not to do so.

I thought of that moment, my first time shaking hands with a politician after coming to Washington, when I heard Ted Kennedy was in the hospital, and it has been on my mind since learning of his diagnosis with a malignant brain tumor.

As far as morality is concerned, give me someone who care about people that he doesn’t have to, any day. Kennedy’s career, and his political stances, have cost fewer lives than the policies of our current president have cost in just 7.5 years, and have helped improved many more as well. Give me 100 more likeTed Kennedy any day, over another George W. Bush.

There are people who caution against “eulogizing” the man too soon. I don’t know what outcome awaits Senator Kennedy, though my wish for him and his family is a speedy recovery. But I do know that honoring the man’s career, his accomplishments, and his commitments — as one who stood up for issues, stood up for people, and fought battles he didn’t have to

— will neither stall or speed along whatever fate awaits him.

I’m reminded of a song a grew up hearing in church occasionally.

Won’t you give me my flowers while I’m living
Let me enjoy them while I can
Please don’t wait till I’m ready to be buried
And then slip some lilies in my hand

Won’t you give me my flowers while I’m living
And let me enjoy them while I can
Please don’t wait till I’m ready to be buried

While Senator Kennedy can yet hear me, I’d like to say thank you, for being a friend and a fighter, when you didn’t have to be.

Get well soon, Senator, and come back to the fight. You have fought and still fight the good fight, but there several rounds left to go. Perhaps it’s selfish to say, but we still need you, and many more like you too.

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