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Charles D. Ellison

Charles D. Ellison

Posted: August 31, 2009 12:21 PM

The Last of the Scrappy Pragmatists


Political eulogies often times seem corny when delivered by those who don't know. It's one of the main reasons they're somewhat difficult to write. Not that they're inappropriate since the individuals they are delivered in memory of led public lives, earning public scrutiny and, in death, public reflection. But, we in the commentary class can only give a limited glimpse into the life and times of the famous. We only knew them based on the persona they delicately crafted. It's only so much you can say about their personal quirks and tendencies, how they were as an individual away from the teasing spotlight or how they interacted with the family they, tragically, leave behind.

With the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), now laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, there's something noticeably different about the farewells and exuberant plaudit. There's an air of familiarity, a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" quality in remembering Kennedy. True that, on one level, there's much exaltation about American royalty and the historic value of that famed Kennedy name. With Sen. Kennedy's passing, many in the political world are eager to postulate who will take his place -- what other rising star will emerge from the Kennedy clan? Who's next? Much of the speculation driven by our incessant preoccupation with celebrity culture, our inability to dust the obstructing glitter from that gold nugget of substance. Perhaps we're paying more attention to politics post-2008 election. But are we really? Are we more concerned about what the First Lady wears or are we truly immersed in her husband's daily policy challenges?

The compelling thing about Kennedy is that his style permeated his substance. It was his most profound attribute as both man and politician. He was one of the few elected officials who carried out a public evolution, witnessing his growth through every charge and change that was "Ted." This was no public spectacle, even with the scandals. This was the enduring and rather inspiring cautionary tale of political life, spirit and perseverance. After generations of holding our public officials to unrealistic standards or detaching them from anything normal, Kennedy presented us with something as magnificent as it was troubling for many: he was the politician we could touch. He appeared to take his flaws head on while exposing the uncomfortable nut of their existence, openly mulling their root causes. That's a refreshing quality for a politician. Admitting to the is in what it is. Coming to unselfish grips with his inner-demons and realizing a 1988 Presidential run would be quixotic at best, Kennedy comfortably accepted his permanent place in the Senate. And ... that was cool, since his presence further validated the upper chamber's necessary role in molding public policy.

Today's analysis centers around the loss of Kennedy as artist of the great compromise. Many lament that his absence is the reason behind lack of a coherent health care reform bill. This unfairly places the blame on Kennedy, a punk-out way for legislators to remove themselves from any obligation to do what's necessary while avoiding the justified suspicions of skeptics who smell deep pocket special interests at work. The real loss is that tireless idealism and scrappy pragmatism that isn't found anywhere else on the Hill. Despite his upbringing of privilege and wealth, Kennedy claimed the cause of "little guy" and did so with tremendous girt and edge. He raised issues, identified large problems and managed to craft the most practical, common sense solutions. It was all about, simply, getting it done ... for the right reasons. How unfortunate folks are quick to use his death as the new battle cry for health care reform when Kennedy himself would tell you that it was never about him in the first place. It was always about the people.

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