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Ted Kennedy and the Missing National Conversation

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"Something died in America," said civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Robert F. Kennedy's untimely death. "Something died within all of us."

Watching the snippets of Ted Kennedy's speeches playing again and again on cable and online reminds us of something else that has died in America: the national conversation about what the Bible calls "the least among us."

It's been missing for a while. Kennedy's passing reminds us how much we need to revive it -- and make it central to the political debate.

For over four decades, Kennedy, in his words and his actions, forced us to question how we, as a nation, were treating the poor, the forgotten, the working families struggling to make ends meet. He gave voice to the voiceless, refusing to let us forget about their plight.

"Programs may sometimes become obsolete," he said during his stirring speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, "but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue... The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs."

As our economic crisis -- yes, the one that has come to an end for Wall Street but not the rest of America -- threatens to turn the American Dream into a living nightmare for millions of our citizens, those human needs are more pressing than ever. And the work of compassion more necessary than ever. There is a newfound urgency to Ted Kennedy's message.

His best speeches always spoke to our idealism, calling us to tap into the better angels of our nature. The passion that Kennedy brought to the fight for America's underprivileged reminds me of the story of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who, after making an impassioned speech condemning slavery, was asked, "Wendell, why are you so on fire?" Phillips looked at his friend and said: "Brother, I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt."

Kennedy was all about melting the icy mountains of indifference. And he set about doing it both with fiery rhetoric and hard-fought legislation.

Ted Kennedy has been a force behind many of the legislative milestones of the last half century, from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (introduced by his brother, JFK, before he was killed) to the Serve America Act of 2009 that bears his name, and which increases the number of people able to take part in national service programs.

And, of course, he has been at the forefront of health care legislation, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers more than seven million children from low-income families.

Kennedy has been fighting to guarantee every American access to affordable, quality health care for forty years. Writing about that battle this summer, he called it the "cause of my life." "It has never been merely a question of policy," he said, "it goes to the heart of my belief in a just society."

It remains to be seen whether the praise being lavished on Kennedy from both sides of the aisle will, as some hope, make the passage of real health care reform more likely or if it will merely lead to bestowing on him the dubious honor of having a gutted-in-the-name-of-bipartisanship bill named after him.

"The dream shall never die," Kennedy famously said in 1980. But the ranks of the poor have grown to over 38 million. And downward mobility -- the antithesis of the American Dream -- has become reality for hundreds of thousands of middle class families. We need to make sure that the focus on them, revived via the retrospectives on Ted Kennedy's work and words, doesn't fade away as soon as the tributes are over.

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