Remembering a Fighter and a Friend

Terrance Heath
Ted_Kennedy.jpg

It was quiet this morning, when I sat down to read the news, after seeing the rest of my family out the door. It was quiet this morning when I read about the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., died without realizing what he called “the cause of my life” — an overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

No lawmaker was more closely identified with the issue that President Obama has made his top legislative priority than Kennedy, who began pushing for universal health care in the 1970s.

… As he neared death, Kennedy sent a letter to the Massachusetts governor and legislature urging them to change state law to allow for his speedy replacement “should a vacancy occur.” Without a change in state law, Massachusetts will be left without one of its two senators for the rest of the year at a time when the Democrats hope to vote on a health care bill. The vacancy will leave the Democrats with 59 votes, one short of the 60 needed to end debate on controversial bills and bring them to a final vote.

In losing Kennedy, Obama loses a key Senate dealmaker at a crucial moment in legislative negotiations over the health care bill. Though an icon of Democratic liberalism, Kennedy was known to colleagues as a jovial pragmatist, whose many friendships with colleagues across the political and ideolgical spectrum made him one of the Senate’s most influential players.

I read about Sen. Kennedy, and tried to think of what to say to honor his memory. I couldn’t. I was, and am, still experiencing his loss.

But I remembered what I wrote in honor of his work, when I first read of his diagnosis. I remembered my first experience of Ted Kennedy, who was the first politician to shake my hand afterI arrived in D.C.

It seems the most appropriate way to honor his legacy now.

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.

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.

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.

 I’ll say it again. Thank you, Senator Kennedy, for being a friend and a fighter.

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