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

The Gift of Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy held a special place in the hearts of my family, my friends and my generation. My father, Roger Hilsman, worked for President Kennedy in the early '60s when Ted was "the kid brother" who came to the Senate at the tender age of 31, only to be welcomed with boatloads of skepticism about his qualifications for the office. Ted was the younger brother who marched behind John Kennedy's casket down Pennsylvania Avenue, trailing a riderless horse. He was the younger brother who delivered a stirring, halting eulogy for Robert Kennedy in Washington's National Cathedral.

Ted was also the man who took charge of the Kennedy family legacy, tirelessly and with great good humor. He assumed the leadership of the liberal wing of the Democratic party with an unmatched vigor and steadfastness through many discouraging years in the wilderness. But when he disagreed with his own party, he never failed to speak out, and even put his career on the line, as in 1980 when he challenged President Carter.

Despite his core commitment to liberal values and principles, he always managed to maintain strong friendships across party lines, even though he was often vilified by the right wing. In the Senate, he was universally admired as a fair opponent and strong leader, who was looking for solutions to problems, rather than seeking to simply pick a fight. He was also a terrific campaigner, as I witnessed first hand in several campaigns, including my own father's campaign for Congress in Connecticut in 1972, when Ted made a special point of speaking on my father's behalf to an enthusiastic audience of shipworkers in Norwich.

Ted Kennedy was a man who loved people, which is the very best quality a politician can have. Lots of politicians love "the people" in the abstract, but have very little use for people in real life. Ted was a man who clearly enjoyed interacting with everyone from conservative Senators to dockworkers or senior citizens. He also had another important quality for a politician - a clear set of values and beliefs that sprung from his own family, heritage and faith. No one could dispute the pedigree of his principles, and this gave him both great strength and a great burden.

Ted Kennedy's illness and death in the midst of a great national debate over health care is in every sense a terrible loss, not only of Ted as a beacon of strength in a epic battle, but also as a leader capable of reason and compromise. At the funeral of his brother Robert in 1968, Ted expressed the hope that, "What he was for us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world."

Perhaps his death will inspire us to follow our better angels and return to finding real solutions to the crisis in health care, rather than descending into shouting and slogans. This could be the final gift of Ted Kennedy.