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

Senator Edward Kennedy: Courage to Believe

Late last night the nation lost one of its great public servants. It is difficult to think of another elected official since WWII who supported programs to help the most vulnerable members of our society with the energy and intelligence consistently displayed by Senator Edward Kennedy. His vision of justice was tied to a commitment to mitigate the cruel effects of economic inequality and entrenched power without unduly compromising economic growth and individual freedom. His support of education as a vehicle for the creation of opportunity has inspired countless students and teachers. He had the courage to maintain his beliefs and to find ways, even in dark times, to make progress.

Senator Kennedy's family had strong ties to Wesleyan University. The senator received an honorary degree here in 1983, and his son Ted is a graduate. His stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin, graduated in 2008, and we had looked forward to a Commencement Address that year from the Lion of the Senate. It was around that time, though, that doctors discovered his tumor. Barack Obama was still in the thick of his campaign, but he took time out to address Wesleyan's graduating class when asked to do so by his Senate colleague and friend. Obama's theme was public service, and it was both a tribute to the great legacy of the Kennedy family and a call to action for the future.

In his Wesleyan Address, Obama had the following to say about Senator Kennedy:

It is rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has touched the lives of nearly every single American without many of us even realizing it. And yet, because of Ted Kennedy, millions of children can see a doctor when they get sick. Mothers and fathers can leave work to spend time with their newborns. Working Americans are paid higher wages, and compensated for overtime, and can keep their health insurance when they change jobs. They are protected from discrimination in the workplace, and those who are born with disabilities can still get an education, and health care, and fair treatment on the job. Our schools are stronger and our colleges are filled with more Americans who can afford it. And I have a feeling that Ted Kennedy is not done just yet.

But surely, surely, if one man can achieve so much and make such a difference in the lives of so many people, then each of us can do our part. Surely, if his service and his story can forever shape America's story, then our collective service can shape the destiny of this generation. At the very least, his living example calls us to try. That is all I ask of you on this joyous day of new beginnings; that is what Senator Kennedy asks of you as well, and that is how we will keep so much needed work going, and the cause of justice everlasting, and the dream alive for generations to come.

Today, the hopeful rhetoric of fourteen months ago is being drowned out by angry, paranoid fear-mongers. Many already seem to regard their own optimism of just a year ago as naïve. But it was not naïve to believe in change, only to believe that change would be easy.

We have already missed Senator Kennedy. In this season of lies and distortions aimed to preserve profits and privilege, we have already missed him. In this season of posturing and bloviating without apparent thought of legislating, we have already missed him. We have already missed his uncanny ability to combine forceful advocacy with thoughtful, pragmatic compromise.

May the memory of his passionate and reasoned voice for health care as a right and not a privilege be the basis for extending and improving our health care system. May we continue to have the courage to believe in the possibilities for positive change. This would be the greatest tribute to a remarkable man.