10/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why The Kennedy Eulogies Struck the Right Tone

The eulogies this past weekend for Senator Ted Kennedy provided the late senator a wonderful send-off, presenting him as both passionate partisan and powerful conciliator, a send-off that would undoubtedly have pleased him. Undoubtedly, in that he planned most of the proceedings himself.

While he didn't write his eulogists' speeches for them, he couldn't help but have a very good idea of what they would say. And what they presented was a picture of a man who was a staunch Democrat, "the soul of the Democratic Party," as President Barack Obama put it, a most imperfect man who was nonetheless a great man of family, and a man of the Senate. Or, perhaps more accurately, a man of the old Senate.

President Barack Obama's complete eulogy for Ted Kennedy.

Kennedy came to the Senate as a very young man of 30, in 1962. He remained there until his death last week, a span of some 47 years in which this last of the fabled Kennedy brothers was expected to seek and probably win the presidency, yet nonetheless was most at home where he was.

His brothers, John and Robert, saw the Senate as a high-profile way station, a platform from which to mount powerful bids for the ultimate in national executive power. Ted Kennedy, a more collegial personality as most who were the youngest children in their families usually are, found it to be not only a platform for raising and promoting one's national profile, but also a forum in which national policy was there to be forged.

Gary Hart, who I first met in 1978, was elected to the Senate in 1974. I remember him describing the Senate he entered -- as distinguished from the Senate of the 1980s, already becoming a harsher and more hyperpartisan place -- as one of a certain collegiality and gentlemanliness, with a measured pace, a place in which one could fight strong partisan battles and yet have reasonable discussions with one's foes.

That was in part due to the tradition of the place -- who here can still remember when the Senate was known as "the world's greatest deliberative body?" -- and in part to the ways of its leader.

Vice President Joe Biden remembered Ted Kennedy during the wake at the John F. Kennedy Library.

Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, almost certainly the only major Democratic politician ever to have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, and an early critic of the Vietnam War, was Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977, the longest tenure in the Senate's history. He welcomed the freshman Hart, as he had the freshman Joe Biden, and the freshman Ted Kennedy before him, and put them all to work.

Kennedy found his political home in this environment. More the doctrinaire liberal than either John or Robert Kennedy, he spoke passionately and fought strongly for the partisan causes that came to define the Democratic Party.

But he focused not only on the fight, but on the result, keeping lines of communication to Republicans open and compromising to find the deal when he felt that the fight was becoming for naught. As a result, Ted Kennedy made a large and lasting imprint on the fabric of America.

From his perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he once chaired and where he served longer than anyone else in history, he shaped the judicial system. Through his chairmanship of Senate committees on labor, education, and health issues, and through sheer assertiveness, determination, and skill as a sort of senator at large, Kennedy played a critical role in developing education, housing, and health care opportunities, advancing the civil rights of women, minorities, gays, immigrants, and the disabled, and promoting human rights and arms control while opposing unwise intervention around the world.

Through it all, he developed many lasting relationships with colleagues.

Last Saturday, you may have seen the white-haired man in the wheelchair, waving his little American flag and crying as he waited in the sun at the U.S. Capitol for the last Kennedy motorcade to arrive for a final farewell before moving on to Arlington.

That was 91-year old Robert Byrd, a one-time Klansman from West Virginia, who at first had little in common with Ted Kennedy. That was especially so when he ran against Kennedy and unseated him as Senate majority whip, a post Kennedy held from 1969 to 1971.

Byrd remains in the Senate, and is its president pro tem, having earlier succeeded Mansfield as Senate majority leader. Only Byrd and South Carolina's Strom Thurmond have served longer in the Senate than Ted Kennedy.

John McCain, Kennedy's frequent antagonist and not infrequent ally, remembered his friend.

They had little in common, the staunch segregationist and the civil rights champion and clashed repeatedly, but Kennedy kept the lines of communication open and forged an alliance and a lasting friendship.

That's what Joe Biden, also a man of the old Senate, was getting at in both his tearful reaction last week to Kennedy's death and his speech at Friday night's wake for Ted Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Library.

It wasn't that Kennedy was a soft touch. He played the hardest of hardball at times, setting in motion the downfall of Richard Nixon -- some observers say Kennedy came to regret not cutting a national health care deal with Nixon -- by engineering the appointment of his close associate Archibald Cox as Watergate special prosecutor and spearheading the defeat of hard right jurist Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court.

But he used, in geopolitical parlance, hard power and soft power in order to achieve his aims.

As Obama, who might well not have become president had Kennedy not come out so strongly for him in the primaries, put it in his well-crafted eulogy at Mission Church in Boston:

We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers' rights or civil rights. And yet, while his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did. While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that is not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw him. He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect - a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.

And that's how Ted Kennedy became the greatest legislator of our time. He did it by hewing to principle, but also by seeking compromise and common cause - not through deal-making and horse-trading alone, but through friendship, and kindness, and humor.

The other eulogies, at both the wake and the funeral, were quite something as well. Among them ... Biden, of course, a very young 66-year old, describing himself as a kid brother to Kennedy.

John McCain, the frequent fierce foe and sometime fervent ally.

Old Harvard and Senate pal John Culver, presenting the most amusingly awful yet enjoyable of sailing races.

Ted Kennedy, Jr., joined by his brother, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, gave perhaps the most moving of eulogies to his father.

Massachusetts colleague John Kerry, whom Kennedy helped propel to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, on his constant need to scale up to Kennedy's achievements.

Son Ted, Jr., for whom I helped advance an event during his father's presidential campaign at which the then teenager already showed flashes of the great speaking ability on display at his father's funeral, movingly describing how his father helped him learn he really could make his way even after losing a leg to cancer at the age of 12.

Ted Kennedy was a quite imperfect man, as we all know, yet did amazing things in his professional, private, and family lives. He was a man whose life was forged in a different time yet continued to be a force in this time.

But he had the advantage of already being well-established and, yes, a Kennedy, in his case, the Kennedy.

The meta-message of the Kennedy eulogies, which were very well received, is that it's best to be both a passionate partisan and a powerful conciliator.

We've already seen the absence of Kennedy's force and focus in this year's dispirited and bizarre "debate" over health care reform, which eulogists were wise not to focus on particularly in favor of celebrating the man and his method.

But is it possible now to promote both principled partisanship and reasoned conciliation (by which I do not mean simply splitting the difference in a simulacrum of centrism)?

We live in a moment of hyperpartisan politics and hyperactive media, in which nuance and rational debate are usually among the first casualties. These things militate against what the Kennedy eulogies celebrated.

Whether or not the qualities on display in so much of Ted Kennedy's life can now be applied to the public arena may be the central question with regard to political progress in this country.