The news broke overnight. U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy passed away last night, after a courageous battle against brain cancer. A fighter to the very end, the senior senator from Massachusetts spent his final week focused on the people of the Bay State and of the entire United States, lobbying to ensure that Massachusetts would have two votes in the U.S. Senate after his passing, fighting for the governor to have the right to appoint a temporary replacement for the Senate seat until a special election could be held. Most appropriately, the story of Kennedy’s passing can be found in the Boston Globe here.
As Eduflack has written before, Senator Kennedy was one of my earliest political heroes. As a young boy, I was fortunate to go to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (which my father helped establish when he was at the University of Massachusetts at Boston). As a kiddo, I was so moved by everything I saw that I insisted on writing to Kennedy immediately. Within weeks, I received a letter from the Senator, thanking me for my kind words and my picture. It even included a handwritten postscript noting that I shared a name with his son. That letter was, and is, a treasured possession, one that was framed and has hung on many a wall since the late 1970s.
When I started off on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, I immediately heard the Byrd/Kennedy stories, including their showdown for Senate Majority Leader more than a decade earlier. But I found offices of great congeniality and partnership, with the Senate Appropriations and Health/Education Committees working together for a better future. Just this morning, I learned from legendary Byrd staffer Michael Willard that Kennedy had actually approached Byrd in 1978 to be his running mate in the 1980 presidential election. Now that would have been a Democratic ticket for the ages.
When I was a Hill staffer working for U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, we were pushing hard in a newly Republican Congress to ban the practice of drive-through deliveries, where mothers and their newborns were kicked out of the hospital less than 24 hours after giving birth because of demands from the insurance companies. In pushing that bill with then U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, we received much support and encouragement from Senator Kennedy, all in his effort to help improve the quality and access of healthcare available to all Americans. We were able to outlaw the practice, despite the huge odds against us.
Years later, I was fortunate enough to be part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001 and 2002, better known as No Child Left Behind. While many questioned why Kennedy pushed so hard to move George W. Bush’s education bill through, it was clear to those who knew Kennedy and followed his career. He believed that a good public education was the true equalizer in the United States. He knew that for far too many Americans, particularly those of color or from low-income households, the playing field would never be level. He fought for NCLB to ensure that all children had the same right to a high-quality education as his children. He believed every student should have an effective teacher, regardless of zip code. And he believed that every student could succeed, and that no child should be given up on or destined to attendance at a drop-out factory or a sub-par public school. He believed in the potential in all of us, and the need to invest in and nurture that potential, regardless of the odds.
In the coming days and weeks, much will be written about Senator Kennedy and his impact on our nation, our policies, and our government. As we wage a bitter fight over healthcare reform and brace for a potential battle over education reforms, we must not forget the lessons offered by Senator Ted Kennedy. Nothing took priority over country and an unwavering commitment to improve the quality of life for every American. No challenge was too large, whether it be healthcare, fair wages, or education. Success came from building bridges, working with individuals of all persuasions, political parties, and points of view. But true leaders also stand by their convictions, never wavering from their commitment and their own beliefs. It is important to hear others, but it is just as important to stand, unwavering, for what we believe in.
My heart goes out to the entire Kennedy clan. Here is hoping that his commitment to the people of Massachusetts and the United States is repaid in future efforts to improve the health, education, and welfare of every American.