I was writing this column when I heard of Senator Kennedy's death.
I am heartbroken.
For more than five decades, my father William vanden Heuvel was a close friend and political ally of Kennedy's. When I called him this morning he had been weeping. He'd just seen the footage on CNN of Kennedy's extraordinarily emotional visit to Ireland, one year after his brother John's assassination. My father traveled with Kennedy on that trip, as he would on many others in the years to follow. He also shared memories of sailing trips on the coast of Maine, and the good times, and tough times, and the campaigns waged and won.
My father told me he was supposed to be on the small plane that crashed and nearly killed Kennedy in 1964; but what with Bobby running for the New York Senate that year, my father went to campaign for Teddy's older brother. He spent the next year shuttling to the Massachusetts hospital to visit Teddy, who was strapped down on a gurney to avoid paralysis.
My father wrote many speeches for Kennedy, and informed many others, including the eloquent and impassioned statements Kennedy made opposing the war in Iraq. Vietnam was never far from Kennedy's mind or the memories of those -- like my father -- who had served in President Kennedy's administration and watched Lyndon Johnson's Great Society destroyed.
When Kennedy was deciding whether to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president, he took counsel with friends and advisers, including my father.
Senator Kennedy was a fighting liberal; a passionate and exuberant lion to the very end -- often among timid cubs. He will be remembered as the best and most effective Senator of the last century. Kennedy helped shape every major piece of legislation, with his powerful commitment to civil rights, labor rights, and women's rights -- always fighting for equality, always standing with the underdog, the poor, the most vulnerable, who he believed deserved lives of dignity.
Kennedy's final fight was for quality, affordable health care for all. As recently as July, he called that fight "the cause of my life." In the coming months, President Obama and a Democratic Congress will determine whether that cause is realized.
Whatever one thinks of President Obama's presidency so far, he is one of the few reform presidents in modern history -- a potential Senator Kennedy recognized when he endorsed his candidacy. A reform President takes on the status quo in order to improve the lives of the majority and ensure that America lives up to it's potential and promise. Franklin Roosevelt was the very model of a reform President. Lyndon Johnson, in a sense, was pushed to become a reformer by the turbulence of the times.
When a reform President takes on the status quo he confronts a ferocious, well-organized, reactionary opposition. What we're seeing today -- with right-wing groups comparing Obama to Hitler and health care reform to socialism--Roosevelt faced with the American Liberty League calling him a socialist or a fascist (ironic, since it was Roosevelt who led the US into war against fascism). Like Obama, Roosevelt also confronted well-funded business lobbies. And in the Catholic demagogue Father Coughlin, Roosevelt had his Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck in a Roman collar.
As Congressman Keith Ellison -- Vice Chair of the Progressive Caucus -- notes in a recent post, "The special interests and protectors of the status quo acted worse when America was on the brink of passing Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation. They spread lies and fear when America was contemplating women's suffrage too."
The rabid protestors opposing Obama are representatives of a long national tradition: an irrational fear of a strong central government. Obama has found it more difficult to turn away from the contemporary edition of the fanatical right than his reform predecessors, partly because conservative ideology has been in the saddle for three decades and the recession began too late in the Bush administration to sufficiently discredit its free-market fundamentalism and those who still speak on its behalf.
Obama himself acknowledged parallels between now and previous battles for reform when speaking to a coalition of religious leaders on August 20. He said, "These struggles always boil down to a contest between hope and fear. That was true in the debate over social security, when FDR was accused of being a socialist. That was true when LBJ tried to pass Medicare. And it's true in this debate today."
Indeed those words might be a valuable frame for a presidential speech after Labor Day, as Obama returns to presenting and--one hopes-- truly fighting for his health care agenda. Obama would be wise to place his agenda in the tradition of reform in US history -- especially the two most popular programs in modern history, Social Security and Medicare -- which were staunchly opposed by the GOP.
The President, his congressional allies, and millions of Americans should also be inspired to honor and fight for the cause of Senator Kennedy's life. Surely the President recognizes that the Senate's fighting liberal would not place the fate of affordable health insurance back in the hands of the private sector without a viable public alternative that isn't driven by profit or greed.
This country now has the best opportunity since 1912 -- when Theodore Roosevelt included universal healthcare in his progressive party platform -- to pass real health care reform and fulfill a moral imperative. A bill with a strong public option would be a victory not only for progressives but for all those who seek a healthier, more humane country where health care is a right not a commodity.
One has to question the value of bipartisanship at this moment. This is not a Republican Party out to criticize or modify health care reform. This is a party out to cripple or kill reform, and with it the future of Obama's presidency. It's high time to part ways with the Party of No-- which once opposed Medicare and Social Security and is now committed to fearmongering about government takeovers and socialism coming to America.
Democrats must pass a strong reform bill by any means necessary (and Congressman Ellison makes a strong case here for using reconciliation to avoid a GOP filibuster). If the Republicans defeat it, let them explain themselves in the 2010 midterm elections to voters who remain at the mercy of insurance companies. If, on the other hand, Dems choose to enact a bipartisan sham reform bill instead of seizing this moment when they are in charge, they will shoulder the blame and see ugly results come 2010.
Every President, no matter how popular at the outset, has only so much political capital and must use it wisely and strategically. And if one looks at American political history--as Mike Lux explains in his valuable book The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be -- every so often a window to change opens and the combination of crisis, leadership, and political movement makes big, positive reforms possible.
"That window is open right now," Lux writes, "and President Obama, to his credit, is trying to keep it open" to make changes that will make our nation immeasurably stronger. But if he gives up this fight and caves to lobbyists -- or either the Congressional Democrats or the grassroots fails to deliver the support he needs -- then that window will slam shut, and the next opportunity for reform might not come for another generation.
That would be a real tragedy -- and also no way to honor the Lion of the Senate. Today President Obama said, "The Kennedy name is synonymous with the Democratic Party." Now, for this fight, the Democratic Party must become synonymous with Kennedy.
This article originally appeared at The Nation.