THE BLOG

Ted Kennedy's Best Highlights Our Failures

05/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Kennedy news reminded me of his extraordinary performance as keynote speaker at the 1980 Democratic convention. If my memory serves, it prompted no less a seen-it-all pro than Walter Cronkite to proclaim it, at the very least, the best speech Kennedy had ever made.

Kennedy had challenged sitting President Jimmy Carter for the nomination, and he had taken his losing fight all the way to the nomination. His loss marked the end of his presidential ambitions, and his challenge to the sitting president had left the party divided. On the convention stage, Kennedy famously avoided shaking Carter's hand. "... after I clearly defeated Senator Kennedy two-to-one, he refused to shake my hand, ostentatiously," Carter recently recalled, "and made it clear to his supporters that he was not supporting me."

Kennedy remained bitter at his loss. His refusal support the nominee kept Democrats divided, and that division helped usher Ronald Reagan into the White House--an object lesson for both of today's Democratic camps. Kennedy's now-famous 1980 keynote speech was a goodbye to his presidential ambitions and thus the Kennedy dynasty, an explanation of the principles for which he ran, and an explication of a particular poignant vision of the Democratic party:

The serious issue before us tonight is the cause for which the Democratic Party has stood in its finest hours, the cause that keeps our party young and makes it, in the second century of its age, the largest political party in this republic and the longest lasting political party on this planet.

Our cause has been, since the days of Thomas Jefferson, the cause of the common man and the common woman.

Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called "the humble members of society -- the farmers, mechanics, and laborers." On this foundation we have defined our values, refined our policies, and refreshed our faith.

Now I take the unusual step of carrying the cause and the commitment of my campaign personally to our national convention. I speak out of a deep sense of urgency about the anguish and anxiety I have seen across America.

I speak out of a deep belief in the ideals of the Democratic Party, and in the potential of that party and of a president to make a difference. And I speak out of a deep trust in our capacity to proceed with boldness and a common vision that will feel and heal the suffering of our time and the divisions of our party.

The economic plank of this platform on its face concerns only material things, but it is also a moral issue that I raise tonight. It has taken many forms over many years. In this campaign and in this country that we seek to lead, the challenge in 1980 is to give our voice and our vote for these fundamental democratic principles.

Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation.

Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy.

Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.

These are not simplistic pledges. Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land.

We dare not forsake that tradition.

We cannot let the great purposes of the Democratic Party become the bygone passages of history.

Soon after this speech, Republicans mastered the art of stroking the "common man" with one hand while picking his pocket with the other. In the stock boom of the 90s, everybody was rich; the poor deserved to be so. Then the housing boom again made us all feel flush. Policies that favored them were policies that favored us.

We're coming back to earth now; the chickens have come home to roost. That 401(k) doesn't look half as promising as it used to, and you won't retire on the house after all. Gas is four bucks a gallon and food is outrageous.

For nearly 30 years the issues and causes that Kennedy so brilliantly championed in his speech, and most ironically, probably helped defeat by his petulance toward Carter, are the same issues for which we fight today. We still don't have universal health care. Job security is more tenuous than ever. In 1980, U.S. CEOs made 54 times as much as the average worker. In 2005, the average CEO made 465 times more. The government and its institutions seem owned and operated subsidiaries of the wealthiest among us.

Unfortunately, looking back at one of Kennedy's finest hours shows us how utterly the party has failed to live up to his soaring vision of it. Looking back, we see how boldly the opposition has steered this country away from the ideal of fulfilling "the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land."

Most importantly, it shows how passively, conciliatorily complicit we've been in the journey.