09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To Live Like Teddy

When a man has lived as full a life and served his constituents and countrymen as loyally and as completely as Senator Ted Kennedy, we must ensure that every ounce of sadness felt in mourning is matched by equal parts pride, gratitude, and promise.

Pride that we were all able to call Massachusetts' senator our own, as he undoubtedly gave himself to his country, not just his state, throughout his nearly 47 years in the Senate. Gratitude for his endless quest for human rights and equality, with equal access to health care for all Americans -- which he himself declared "the cause of my life" at last year's Democratic National Convention -- most recently at the forefront of the public mind. And promise that we, who he served so tirelessly at all stages in his life, will carry on his life's work.

Teddy is often talked about for "shouldering the responsibility" to country that his brothers had sought to carry but were forced to yield, but the kind of dedication with which Teddy served this country isn't something that can be inherited or passed on or borrowed. It is something inside, a genuine desire to make things better -- or, at the very least, make things right -- for everyone. Born into a family of such privilege, Kennedy dedicated his life to fighting for those who had none. He spoke out for immigrants, the ill, the disabled, the veterans, children, the racially and religiously persecuted. He declined to throw his weight behind a dear friend in the 2008 Democratic Primary, instead, his voice trembling with energy, announcing that change was coming, and that change was President Barack Obama.

Even when Teddy was responsible for the death of a young woman in a car crash that would haunt him for the rest of his life, he returned to work on the Senate floor, not hiding from what had happened... though certainly never forgetting it. Whatever his private pains, be it his own misdeeds or the numerous losses his family has sustained over the years, Teddy persevered in public service.

The day I met Teddy, I will never forget. The 2004 campaign pitted Kennedy's fellow Massachusetts senator John Kerry against an incumbent George W. Bush, and the battle had gotten bloody. The swift boats had turned on the Kerry campaign, and our morale was bruised. Teddy came into our D.C. headquarters shortly before Election Day to fire us up with a pep talk unlike I had ever heard. I was blown away at the passion in this man's eyes, and how, just as I'd seen him on C-SPAN for years, he was a lion all right, but with a heart as big as the world. That he took time out of his day on the Hill to rally the troops behind his colleague filled me with an encouragement that I can still feel. His rallying cries over the decades, for his brothers and for his own candidacy and for every Democratic presidential candidate since, awoke in many a passion for politics that was dangerously close to being lost forever. Ted Kennedy was a self-described "proud liberal," both when being termed a liberal was viewed as a insult and when it was hopelessly trendy. To Teddy, being called a liberal was always a good thing, if it was what you were called when you fought on the side of the people.

I close with Teddy's own words, which strike me as particularly relevant in the wake of the tumultuous health care reform town hall meetings. Teddy was nothing if not respectful of his fellow Senate colleagues, whether they disagreed with him or not. Let's move forward, in this dialogue and all that follow, with these words in mind:

"The Constitution does not just protect those whose views we share; it also protects those with whose views we disagree."