Compassionate Liberalism: Senator Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

By Dionne, E. J. | Commonweal, September 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

Compassionate Liberalism: Senator Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009


Dionne, E. J., Commonweal


Ted Kennedy was treasured by liberals, loved by many of his conservative colleagues, revered by African Americans and Latinos, respected by hard-bitten political bosses, admired by students of the legislative process, and cherished by those who constituted the finest cadre of staff members ever assembled on Capitol Hill.

The Kennedy paradox is that he managed to be esteemed by almost everyone without ever becoming all things to all people. He stood for large purposes, unequivocally and unapologetically, and never ducked tough choices. Yet he made it his business to get work done with anyone who would toil along with him. He was a friend, colleague, and human being before he was an ideologue or partisan, even though he was a joyful liberal and an implacable Democrat.

Ted Kennedy suffered profoundly, made large mistakes, and was, to say the least, imperfect. But the suffering and the failures fed a humane humility that led him to reach out to others who fell, to empathize with those burdened by pain, to understand human folly, and to appreciate the quest for redemption.

That made him a rarity in politics. Never pretending that he knew everything, he had a magnetic draw for talented people who stayed with him for years. He trusted them and gave them room to shine. Their guidance and his own intelligence and feverish work made him one of the greatest senators in history.

There was another Kennedy paradox: Precisely because he knew so clearly what he wanted and where he wished the country to move, he could strike deals with Republicans far outside his philosophical comfort zone. He worked with Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of his dearest friends, to bring health coverage to millions of children, with President George W. Bush on education reform, with Lamar Alexander (R-Ark.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to improve child care, with John McCain (R-Ariz.) on immigration reform. It was hard to find a Republican senator Kennedy had not worked with at some point during his forty-seven years in Washington.

Kennedy's willingness to cross party lines only enhanced his credibility when he needed to stand alone as a progressive prophet. In early 2003, while so many in his party cowered in fear, Kennedy stood against the impending invasion of Iraq, warning that it would "undermine" the war against terrorism and "feed a rising tide of anti-Americanism overseas. …

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