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Sasha Reuther

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The Cresting Wave

Posted: 09/07/09 09:44 AM ET

"We could ill afford to lose him. Never before in my memory has there been such a crisis of confidence in our national leaders, such deep division among our people, such a prolonged loss of our sense of national purpose."

"Another giant leader has been taken from us, a man who knew our people well, a man who could guide us along the path we sought. Time and again, he demonstrated the priceless qualities of judgment and leadership that seem all too rare in public life at this crucial moment in our history."

"To be so cruelly deprived of his extraordinary talent, especially now when this aspect of his work was nearing fruition, is a heavy loss to all of us concerned with the quality of health care in America."

Given recent events, it would seem obvious as to whose legacy the above excerpts pay tribute. However, they are not about but rather delivered by the man in question. On May 14th, 1970, Senator Ted Kennedy gave this address at the 21st Annual Albert Lasker Medical Foundation Awards Ceremony in New York City. The young senator was a last minute replacement, as the intended speaker, United Auto Workers' President Walter Reuther had died in a plane crash in Michigan the previous Saturday. The eloquent speech became a eulogy of sorts to the fallen Labor leader, highlighting his many achievements in the cause of social justice. The core of Kennedy's message focused on Reuther's final crusade, one that is all the more poignant today.

During the production of my upcoming documentary Brothers On The Line, I had the opportunity to sit with the late Senator along with a wide array of other colorful personalities, recalling a family legacy both triumphant and troubling. The movement, in which my great uncle Walter and his younger brothers Roy and Victor (my grandfather) played a vital role from the Great Depression to Great Society, produced unprecedented protections for the workingman, championed civil rights, and oversaw the boom of an industry. Yet, constrained by political compromise and a rigid union hierarchy largely of his own creation, Walter Reuther never fully realized his vision of a national social transformation. The cornerstone of that dream was quality health care for all.

"Progress with the community, not at the expense of the community." A famed sloganeer, this was one of his favorites. Walter felt that the benefits won across the bargaining table should not just apply to the workers in his union, but to all Americans. Following World War II, he believed that it was the responsibility of the government to set up a federal insurance program to provide health care and pensions and hoped that industry would help lobby for an expansion of the Social Security program. In the '60s, the UAW chief was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Medicare. His Citizens Crusade Against Poverty helped reveal the plight of millions of Americans starving in the midst of affluence. And finally in 1968, Walter created the Committee of One Hundred for National Health Insurance, a diverse group of medical professionals, labor, management, the clergy, scholars, and a cross-section of average citizens set out to devise the basic principles on which workable and meaningful health care legislation could be based. Less than a year later, just after garnering the support of a 37-year-old Massachusetts Senator equally dedicated to correcting the inequities in the system, the movement suffered a tragic blow with the death of its leader. In what would soon become the great passion of his own life, Ted Kennedy honored his friend with these additional words at the Lasker Foundation event:

"Just as the great physicist, Lord Rutherford, when asked how he always happened to be riding the crest of the wave of modern physics, is said to have replied, 'I made the wave, didn't I,' so Walter Reuther made the wave of the health revolution that is cresting now in America."

"We who live will carry on his work. We will rededicate ourselves to his ideals, and to the ideals of the other great leaders we have lost. We can succeed, but only if we make this commitment our commitment, his dream our dream."

This Labor Day would mark 40 years since Walter Reuther gave his final challenge to the workers of this nation. As Senator Kennedy gently reminded me in our interview, Walter never promised his workers anything; he challenged them to build that better tomorrow. While I have never clocked in time on an assembly line and may lack the fiery rhetoric of my elders, I have had history at my fingertips over the last few months and feel compelled to share my findings on this reflective day. The fight for national health care in this country has been carried through the trenches, decade after decade, by men and women with deep resolve. Behind Senator Kennedy's steadfast leadership, the second wave grew broader and bolder. It is a generation-defining struggle that must not waver, even with the loss of another great champion. I pledge to do my part and only hope that we can forge the next committee or coalition to finally reach the shore...and survive the latest vicious undertow.