In the 1962 campaign to fill the Senate seat vacated by President Kennedy, the then state Attorney General dismissed his primary opponent by stating that "if your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a farce." Nearly a half century later few remember that gentleman's name but throughout this period his opponent has been a dominant force in American politics precisely because he was not Edward Moore but instead was Ted Kennedy.
I was born a year later in neighboring Rhode Island and for me it was an era defined by Dion's song "Abraham, Martin & John" mourning the loss of the decade's three giants; and as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, it is clearly a loss that we carry with us today.
But throughout there has always been Teddy. Like Ulysses, he endured immeasurable hardships, including surviving a plane crash and the tragic death of three brothers, and rose to the challenges he faced. He was not only the last link to this age of giants, but he became one himself. Senator Kennedy has built a record of legislative achievement unmatched in our history (often working with Republicans despite his status as the GOP's official punching bag); with some saying he has had more impact on the lives of Americans than most of the nine presidents he has served under.
It is fitting that his maiden Senate speech was on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his career would be marked by a tireless commitment to civil rights. He has always been a champion for the forgotten and less fortunate whether it be the disabled through the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which guarantees public education to children with disabilities in every state; the elderly through programs such as Meals on Wheels; children through the expansion of Head Start and the creation of the National Military Child Care Act, which has establish a top notch child care system for military families; and working Americans through his passionate battle to increase the minimum wage and for home heating oil assistance for the poor.
But it has been health care that has defined his career and drove his decision to challenge President Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. While he has been thwarted in his efforts to pass a national health plan, he is responsible for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which enables 25 million Americans to maintain their health insurance when they switch jobs; the State Children's Health Insurance Program to help states provide health insurance to children in low-income families; as well as legislation promoting the use of mammograms and creating a national system of health centers.
Kennedy has been called the Senate's "Last Lion" and his mighty roar now circulates on YouTube -- including his famous plea "when does the greed stop" to those opposing a minimum wage increase. More importantly, this Lion has been the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. He has campaigned for Democratic candidates across the country non-stop since the cruel hand of fate made him the heir to the family legacy; and the family has opened their homes to party leaders across the nation who stand in awe as the glory and tragedy of the Kennedy family is on full display on the walls around them.
While the announcement that Senator Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor has stirred a nationwide reaction; let us not eulogize him prematurely since if there is one thing Democrats and Republicans agree upon is that Ted Kennedy is a fighter.
But what has moved people is not just the thought of this great lion in winter, but the unsettling thought that with his passing the age of giants, which made the nation what it is today, will have ended. It has been replaced by the age of sound byte politics which has left us few leaders with the boldness to appeal to our better selves to build a better nation for all Americans, instead of a Wal-Mart nation that foolishly believes we can maintain our quality of life on the cheap.
Kennedy will be forever remembered for his 1980 Democratic convention speech in which he himself invoked the legend of a weary Ulysses who remains "strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" before promising the faithful that "the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
While the Senator and his family will remain in our thoughts and prayers, we also must recognize that it is now our turn to remain strong in will to ensure that the cause endures and that the dream shall never die.
Bennet Kelley was a volunteer on Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign
(Originally published in Santa Monica Daily Press)