09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I waited until we were all strapped into our seats and I heard the stewardess asking Teddy if she could bring him a drink. He refused, as he always does in public, and just as the stewardess finished her spiel I leaned over the seat and said, 'How about some heroin?' His face went stiff and for a moment I thought it was all over for me."

-- Hunter S. Thompson, "Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith," Rolling Stone, 1976

Two things came to mind while I was watching the sad coverage of the death of Teddy Kennedy last night.

1. I was working at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, when Teddy gave his famous "And the dream shall never die" speech. It got a bigger, more passionate crowd reaction than Jimmy Carter's. But the delegates wouldn't give Teddy the nomination.

2. In 1992, the first joke I ever sold, to Jay Leno, was a Ted Kennedy joke. It was about Old Ironsides, the famous warship, which had been removed from Boston Harbor, restored and put back. The punchline went "It was the biggest thing in Massachusetts to hit the water since Ted Kennedy."

In a recent PBS documentary on Neil Young, Neil talks about how the only thing he cares about is the music, and how this destroys some relationships. "But once you get known for that," said Neil, "then people come to expect it, and it becomes OK."

You knew what to expect from Teddy. Personally, his life was often a mess (to put it mildly), but politically, professionally, he was rock solid. He stood for something. As MSNBC put it, he was the last unreconstructed liberal in the Senate.

And yet one of his closest friends was Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a conservative. Hatch spoke in such glowing terms it seemed impossible that he was talking about a Democrat. Last weekend he said that Kennedy was the one who could find a way to bring the parties together on health care.

I used to wonder how Hatch and Kennedy could work so well together. One reason might be that they each knew exactly where the other stood. There was no guessing, no bullshitting. So they could be opposed to each other, but find common ground.

Teddy was the ultimate Washington insider. This was a good thing. It helped solidify his position as the ultimate Senate liberal. He had 47 years' experience and 300 some-odd bills to his credit. We need more people who aspire to this kind of service.

I am grateful that we had him for as long as we did. I hope he is seen less as an icon and more as an example. Yes, he was part of the Kennedy dynasty, but he also worked his ass off. Even in his final days, he was working.

I'd like to think that Teddy's death will have meaning, that it will push the public option through the way JFK's death pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Does "the dream shall never die" apply to health care?

I don't know. But I do know this. If the public option passes, it will be the biggest (and best) thing to hit the country since Ted Kennedy.