Liberalism Personified – Edward M. Kennedy 1932 – 2009

When I woke the morning of August 26 and heard the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing, I was saddened, but had no intention of writing about it. I was content with posting a retrospective video on my Facebook page as a symbol of my grief (video clip, embedded below).  However, a comment on that video from a conservative friend got my blood up.  The comment was in reference to the tragic episode in the life of Ted Kennedy known as Chappaquiddick, and was my motivation for writing the following:

Kennedy’s detractors have always sought to hang Chappaquiddick around his neck as if one tragic event could define him.  I always felt that, if they were to be honest with themselves, conservatives would admit their disdain for Sen. Kennedy has always been grounded in the view of  him as the personification of liberalism in America.  As such, Ted Kennedy embodied both; everything conservatives despise, and most of the qualities prized by progressive Americans.  It boils down to competing definitions of what it means to be a liberal.

Teddy’s older brother John F. Kennedy identified the difference in a September 1960:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Teddy, himself, put his finger on it during his eulogy for his brother Robert in 1968:

This is the way he lived. My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it…

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

“Some men see things as they are and say why.

I dream things that never were and say why not.”

I heard that last phrase countless times following Ted Kennedy’s death, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.  It denotes a sense of optimism which is, sadly, scarce in today’s political climate.

Like his brothers, John and Robert, Teddy came to be viewed by segment of conservatives as traitor to his privileged class in the same way FDR was during the New Deal.  Over his 46 years in the U.S. Senate, Edward M. Kennedy was a champion of the less-fortunate, playing significant rolls in the passage of the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, to name a few.

But these are examples of Kennedy’s legislative efforts intended to combat discrimination, difficult for all but the staunchest conservatives to attack after their passage.  This, perhaps, explains why Chappaquiddick is the first arrow out of the quiver when conservatives attack him.  It is the easy route.

Parallels are found within the present national debate over health care reform:  the primary focus of Kennedy’s public life.  Opponents of reform have sought to inspire fear, poisoning the public discourse with misinformation.  Why?  Because arguing the issue on the merits would be much more difficult.

Also within Teddy’s eulogy of his brother, he described those who would choose the easier path:

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live…

As I read, and reread Teddy’s eulogy my anger over the Chappaquiddick comment subsided.  It did so because the words he chose to honor his fallen brother remain true today.

History shows us that the American ideological pendulum has always swung from conservative to liberal and back, but the mechanism itself, the fulcrum if you will, inevitably has moved in a progressive direction.  It has, and will continue to do so, no matter how one decides to define the terms involved.  Thus, optimism and empathy, inevitably, will always triumph over pessimism and apathy.

In closing, I feel it is important to note that not all conservatives, much to their credit, do not pursue the easy path.  Indeed many conservatives have chosen to remember Ted Kennedy fondly, recognizing his commitment to bipartisanship throughout his tenure in the U.S. Senate (to hear Nancy Reagan’s touching recollection of Kennedy, click here).  Whether or not this will translate into legislation providing health insurance for all U.S. citizens remains to be seen.

Regardless, those who seek to define him by a four-decades-old tragedy do so at the peril of their conservative ideology.  They should consider growing up, in my opinion.  Thanks in part to Edward M. Kennedy, progress will happen whether they want it to or not.

The following clip is from the 2008 Democratic National Convention and was created by Ken Burns.  To see the famed documentary film maker’s emotional recollection of Ted Kennedy and his final speech at that same event, click here.  Additionally, if you are so inclined, please sign the Care2 Pledge to Honor Ted Kennedy.

R.I.P., Teddy.

Image from user: xavierla, by way of


Dennis M.
Dennis M8 years ago

Random thoughts on this article, the comments associated with it, and liberal/conservatism in general.

First for Aaron: more delusional ramblings. I'm getting used to your style, though. It's comical and sad all at the same time.

"Kennedy's detractors have always sought to hang Chappaquiddick around his neck as if one tragic event could define him."

Recap of Chappaquiddick: Drunk man drives off a bridge, flips car, but escapes with his life. But in the effort, he leaves the passenger in his car to die. Leaves her. He goes home and thinks about what he should do that would save his career, while she is dying. This is the "one tragic event" that we should dismiss? He is responsible for that girls death. I wonder if the family of the girl killed can dismiss the one tragic event as casually as you do?

As for the comments, please understand the difference between republicans and conservatives. A republican is an affiliate to a political party; a conservative (true conservative) believes in a smaller government that serves the people, based on the constitution. You remember the constitution?

"Provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare..."

That's NOT provide general welfare, and promote common defense. War is hell, but it's not going away anytime soon. You can wish, and hope, and apologize all you want, but the stronger the military, the stronger the country.

On health care: Most people like their care, so why wreck the whole system? Fix what n

Jim D.
Past Member 8 years ago

Thank you Michelle for being so rational! Indeed, MA has given us so many great leaders, not to mention the template for the US Constitution. Teddy will be missed, but never forgotten. History will remember him as a truly great American and senator.

And sure, history will remember Bush along with worst presidents, if not the worst. Thank god he's out. Maybe we can start moving forward again.

And this stupid Canada-bashing thing that Reps/Cons can't seem to let go of has just become tedious. There's not a shred of evidence supporting their argument. Canadain healthcare and Canadian's health rates way above the US -- tons of evidence supports that. But it's in the lable: Conservative. I guess that means hanging on to stuff no matter how poor or stupid it is .... perhaps that's how we got Bush, twice. Mind boggling stupidity.

Thank god Liberals have a huge majority. Once again, we gotta clean up the mess left by Conservatives.

Whew. Will they ever learn?



Nancy H.
Nancy H8 years ago

And over half are trying to change that health care plan so universal and why? It doesn't work either! I lived in Canada for years and sometimes you had to wait a year for a test, a test that could alter your life and sometimes it was too late for some people I knew there! Not everyone wants health care money taken out of their check and so that is voluntary and a choice they choose. We will always have the poor, we will always have the rich and the middle class will always flounder. We need a change but I don't think it is what is being offered right now. We need to get rid of the insurance companies that own 90% of the businesses in this country, do the research and back track companies and you will find insurance companies have a high investment in every business. We've allowed insurance lobbyists to sucker our politicians for way too many years. Make health care private owned leave out insurance companies and the Government, they foul everything else up as it is.

Nancy Dodson
Nancy Dodson8 years ago


Are you aware that it is actually going to be more expensive to NOT do anything about health care? That is a well documented fact.

Michele M.
Michele M8 years ago

I am deeply, deeply saddened by the death of Senator Kennedy, and I have been very proud, in my 14 years as a Massachusetts resident, that he represented me. One of the many things I admired about him is his dedication to his cause and his steadfastness in sticking to his message and his values even when they were outright unpopular or when no one seemed to care about them, such as during his campaign for the presidency, when people were more interested in the egocentric message of Reaganomics and the trickle-down economy than in ensuring health care access for all citizens and taxpayers.

Regarding the cost of expanding health coverage to all taxpayers, where were the people who are crying out that we can't afford it back when President Bush launched two wars and still wanted a tax cut? A tax cut at wartime was unprecedented and put us into a downward spiral in terms of the national debt, yet I didn't hear the conservatives crying out that THAT was too expensive. I guess they didn't mind because it helps pay for their SUVs, vacations, investments and expensive toys.

We HAVE to find a way to afford health care for all, given that the current system is killing our economy. Bankruptcies caused by medical death are skyrocketing to previously unheard-of levels, and more people falling into debt and bankruptcy can only hinder our economic recovery. I hope that, in Sen. Kennedy's memory, we pass a meaningful health care reform with access for everyone.

Carol H.
Past Member 8 years ago

We can not afford Health Care Reform because it is way to expensive for all of us and for all the children way after us and that is a fact!!!

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L8 years ago

It is a sad thught but we shall not see the like of him again. I am a prould American Liberal who is very sad that we have lost our Champion. Rest easy and peacefully Senator.

Nancy Dodson
Nancy Dodson8 years ago

As the opponents of health care for all beat their drums more loudly I can't help but think of some bible passages that come to mind. "If a person is naked, Jesus says to clothe them, if they are hungry, feed them, if they are in a ditch, you help them." He also said if someone comes to your door in need of help, help them as you may be entertaining angels! That's what we liberals are dedicated to and yet a lot of conservatives tout themselves as Compassionate Conservatives. What's wrong with this picture? We have to all carry on Teddy's work and never give up until the goal is reached.

Good post, Lynelle, I'm going to email my senators right now.

I was reminded of a couple of incidents that happened to me about 10 years ago. My husband and I had a small country store and served food. Several times I had men come in that were hitchhiking on the road and said they had no money and could I just give them a cupcake or something. I always sat them down and gave them all the sandwiches they wanted, as many drinks as they could drink (non-alcoholic) and as many cupcakes or whatever looked good to them as they could eat. I was happy to do it, and they sure didn't look like angels, but I felt I had done what is required of me as a human being. I can remember my very Conservative employee just having a fit and stomping around the store thinking I was nuts. She told me to just shove them out the door.

Quite a life lesson for me!

Johnny S.
Johnny S.8 years ago

He was a good man.

Johnny S.
Johnny S.8 years ago

RIP Kennedy.
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