Kennedy, the Liberal Lion,’ Leaves a Historic Legacy
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), the Senate’s “liberal lion— for nearly a half-century, died late Tuesday in the midst of an epic Congressional battle over his career-long goal of restructuring of the nation’s health care system. Massachusetts’ senior Senator died after battling a cancerous brain tumor over the past 15 months. Kennedy, the younger brother of President John Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, was 77.Kennedy’s public appearances were rare but dramatic over the past year. He received a hero’s welcome at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver and made a surprise appearance on the Senate floor in February to provide a crucial vote for the economic stimulus package. He also took breaks from his cancer treatment to vote on cherished issues such as a national service initiative — which was renamed in his honor — and to combat financial fraud.But Kennedy, a longtime foe of the tobacco industry, was unable to make it to Capitol Hill for a vote this spring on legislation that for the first time gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products.Kennedy did make the trip to the Capitol on Jan. 20 for the inauguration of President Barack Obama — his endorsement of Obama provided a huge public relations boost for the then-junior Illinois Senator in his epic Democratic primary battle against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.But Kennedy was stricken with a seizure at Obama’s inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall and forced to leave early.As Obama embarked on his signature campaign to pass health care reform legislation, Kennedy — who this summer called health care reform “the cause of my life— — was physically unable to shepherd a bill from his position as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Kennedy spent the 12 years of GOP dominance on Capitol Hill as a vociferous critic of Republican priorities, and he reclaimed the HELP Committee gavel in 2006 with a determination to implement the liberal policies he had been advocating for decades.But in May 2008, Kennedy suffered a seizure at his family’s compound in Massachusetts, and doctors discovered days later that he had a life-threatening brain tumor.Knowing the prognosis was grim, Senators and aides reacted to Kennedy’s diagnosis with tears on the Senate floor and in the hallways of the Capitol. With an outlook of less than five years, Kennedy sought to minimize the tumor’s size by undergoing surgery in June 2008.He remained secluded in Massachusetts and Florida for most of his recovery but made a surprise appearance on the Senate floor in July 2008 to cast the deciding vote on a Medicare bill. In August, he delighted Democratic National Convention attendees by appearing at a planned tribute to his life and work.Kennedy was an early and influential supporter of Obama’s candidacy, and he dedicated himself in the latter part of 2008 and early months of 2009 to writing a universal health insurance bill built around Obama’s plan.He attempted to begin writing the health care bill himself last fall, when he returned to Washington shortly before the election to initiate a series of meetings with interest groups as well as with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and HELP Republicans and Democrats. But his failing health and extended absences this year led him to tap his longtime friend Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the panel’s No. 2 Democrat, to guide the HELP bill through committee. But many Republicans complained the process suffered for it.Dodd said he regularly consulted Kennedy and involved the chairman’s staff in writing the bill before he pushed it through a two-and-a-half week markup that resulted in a party-line vote. Baucus, meanwhile, took it upon himself to look for bipartisanship by convening an unofficial subcommittee of three Democrats and three Republicans. Given Kennedy’s long history of bipartisan compromise, several Republicans said his physical absence has been significant drag on the Democrats’ top legislative priority.HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who has also been negotiating with Baucus, repeatedly grumbled in recent months that Dodd’s and Kennedy’s staffs did not include him when writing the HELP bill. “I don’t think Sen. Kennedy would have treated me this way,” he has said.Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told the Web site Politics Daily that the Senate would be much closer to a bipartisan agreement on health care reform if Kennedy were present, largely because his credentials with liberal groups gave him more bargaining power than most Democrats.”He is able to create compromises that otherwise could not be created, because people have confidence in him as an individual who will not undermine the liberal agenda,— Gregg said.Known as the “liberal lion— for his advocacy of programs for the poor, Kennedy nonetheless gained a reputation as a dealmaker in his 47-year Senate career. And Kennedy’s legislative accomplishments are almost too numerous to count, given he worked with nine presidents during his career in the Senate.Some of his key successes include passage of the health insurance portability bill, the children’s health insurance program, several increases to the minimum wage, the No Child Left Behind Act, Americorps, the low-income heating assistance program, the Women, Infants and Children food stamp program and the Americans with Disabilities Act. He championed bills to expand the federal hate crimes statute and to prohibit discrimination against gays in the workplace. His hate crimes bill was attached to the Senate’s Defense authorization bill.Kennedy also was a longtime defender of Medicare, the country’s health insurance plan for seniors, as well as health care for the poor under Medicaid, given he was a Member of the Senate when both were created in 1965.Kennedy was first elected to the Senate in 1962 when he was just 30 years old — the minimum age the U.S. Constitution stipulates for service in the chamber. His ascension was plainly dynastic: His father, Joseph, helped pave the way for Kennedy to take the seat of his brother, President Kennedy. When JFK took the presidency in 1960, Edward Kennedy was only 28; a college roommate of the president was appointed as a caretaker for the seat until Edward Kennedy was of age to run in his own right.Kennedy became the head of the family when John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the 1960s. Still, he carried the reputation of a playboy and a prolific drinker. He was kicked out of Harvard University in 1951 for cheating on a Spanish exam and went into the Army for a couple of years, only to return to Harvard and complete his degree in1956.While at Harvard, Kennedy was an accomplished football player who caught the eye of the Green Bay Packers head coach Lisle Blackbourn. “You have been very highly recommended to us by a number of coaches in your area and also by our talent scouts as a possible Pro Prospect,— Blackbourn wrote to Kennedy, according to a biography on his Senate Web site.However, the Web site noted, “Kennedy declined the offer, saying he was flattered, but that he had plans to attend law school and to go into another contact sport, politics’.—He received his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School just three years before entering the Senate.Despite his academic accomplishments, Kennedy’s reputation for hard living got him into serious trouble in 1969 when the car the 37-year-old Senator was driving went off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts.A former RFK aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, died in the incident, but Kennedy waited almost 12 hours to report it to police. He later pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident, but questions about his behavior and rumors about a cover-up of what happened that night haunted him throughout his career.The Chappaquiddick incident prevented Kennedy from running for president in 1972, and when he did run for president in 1980, a television news interview with the Senator focused primarily on the accident and was widely believed to have damaged Kennedy’s chances of beating President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary.Kennedy was ahead of Carter in many polls when he began the primary race in 1979, amid the rise of inflation and gas shortages. However, the combination of the TV interview and the hostage crisis in Iran, among other things, appeared to cause Democrats to rally around Carter.Even though Carter won the early primaries decisively and clearly had enough delegates to win the nomination, Kennedy refused to drop out of the race and unsuccessfully sought to persuade Carter delegates to switch their vote at the convention. Even after he gave his concession speech praising Carter at the convention, Kennedy refused to grasp hands with Carter on stage. Carter went on to lose re-election to Ronald Reagan.Kennedy chaired the Judiciary Committee in the 96th Congress, but he long made the HELP panel his top priority. He served as the top Democrat on HELP — known as the Labor and Human Resources Committee in earlier Congresses — since 1987. He served as Senate Democratic Whip from 1967 to 1971.Kennedy is survived by his wife, Victoria, and three children from his first marriage to Virginia Joan Bennett — Kara Kennedy, 49, of Washington, D.C.; Edward M. Kennedy Jr., 47, of New Haven, Conn.; and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), 42. He has two stepchildren, Curran Raclin, 25, and Caroline Raclin, 23, both of Boston, and four grandchildren.