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

Remembering Senator Ted Kennedy

At the 1980 Democratic Convention I was not pleased with Senator Ted Kennedy. Why was he challenging the incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Presidency, and thereby hurting his chances for re-election?

The convention was deeply divided between Carter and Kennedy supporters. But we sat shoulder to shoulder on the convention floor to hear Kennedy speak.

All was forgiven. I was enraptured by the passion and substance of his words. It was one of the most mesmerizing political speeches I had ever heard, climaxed by the words, “the dream will never die.” And he did not let the dream die after he lost his last stand battle with Carter.

He went to work as a Senator. When I worked in Washington as Deputy Secretary of Education from 1993–1996, I had a firsthand opportunity to experience how Kennedy “worked.” Unlike most United States Senators who are experts at demonstrating their self-importance, Kennedy carried his fame lightly. He wasn’t there to grandstand or issue partisan salvos; he was there to get things done.

I worked with him and his staff on several education issues, including the Direct Student Loan Program and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. When he chaired the commitee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, he worked closely with the Republican Vice Chair, Senator Nancy Kassebaum. When he lost his chairmanship because of the Republican takeover of the Senate, he worked just as closely with her.

The irony of his career is that from the outside, he appeared to be one of the most liberal and partisan Democrats in the Senate. From the inside, he was one of the most bipartisan and constructive members of the Senate. He respected his colleagues and they respected him.

And he understood the process—not only in terms of the rules by which the Senate plays, but also in terms of how people interact with one another, how to make a deal which leaves both sides feeling they have won.

Another contradiction in his life is that he was so obviously flawed as a human being in his early years, and in his later years, became a model of a life well lived. We tend to forget that he was expelled from Harvard for cheating, we remember Chappaquiddick without having to restate the details, and we know about his struggles with weight gain and alcohol consumption.

History, however, will be kind. He will be remembered for his strengths, rather than his frailties. His strength in working all the angles of a piece of legislation to get it through, his faith in the democratic process, his respect for dissent, and his unwavering belief in the dream.

I only wish, as we listen to the accolades that will be given to him in the days ahead, by mourners all over the world, that the members of the United States Senate could give him the highest honor of all by passing an effective health care reform bill. That would please him greatly.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state’s first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton’s VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Cross-posted on