Kennedy’s legacy: service to the public

Like many, I was deeply saddened when I heard the word of Senator Kennedy’s passing. The funeral service later today, at which Pres. Obama will give the eulogy, promises to be incredibly sad. So much has already been said about Sen. Kennedy’s life and accomplishments, so let me just add these thoughts to the discussion. We heard about Sen. Kennedy’s death on the news Tuesday morning. I was standing in the kitchen, listening to the coverage, and my daughter Eliana – who’s something of a political junky – was asking me why Ted Kennedy was considered such a “good Senator.” (“Good Senator”  had been my two word Cliffs Notes on why his dying was such a momentus occasion). I started to explain all the important laws that he helped pass. To relate it a bit to Eliana’s life, I talked about Title IX and how women’s athletic teams used to be treated very differently from men’s teams; women athletes received less money and resources, were forced to pay their own way for travel and equipment while men’s teams had their athletics subsidized, how women were prevented or denied the opportunity to play many sports that men played. After a couple sentences, I really almost lost it and just had to stop talking for a while. Somehow just explaining one of the many incredibly important laws that Sen. Kennedy helped usher through Congress — made me experience his loss all the more. I realized, I suppose, that the progressive and liberal ideas he championed so vocally – universal healthcare chief among them — have lost a champion. I note, with dismay, that even as Sen. Kennedy is laid to rest, many of the ideas and reforms he fought his whole life for are under attack. And they’re under attack not by popular revolt (I don’t hear Medicare recipients clamoring to have the government get out of their business), but by lobbyists, monied interests, stateless corporations and media conglomerates worried about what it might mean for their business. I don’t know what Rupert Murdoch has ever done for me, but I’ll say this: Ted Kennedy’s actions opened doors for my three daughters that will transform their lives, helping them build confidence and insuring that they will be treated as full equals of their male counterparts in the classroom, on the playing field and in the workplace.

Kennedys service to the public should be an inspiration to us today.

Kennedy's service to the public should be an inspiration to us today.

The Kennedy legacy is animated by this very idea: that government can and should help those who, for whatever reason, lack the means or the clout or the ability to help themselves. If you try to make that argument now you’re called a Nazi or a Socialist — accused of despising capitalism and, by extension, America. Fortunately,  the Kennedys weren’t worried about who said what about them. And they weren’t preoccupied with protecting anyone’s business model, either (which seems to be the main focus of the current healthcare debate). John, Bobby and Ted gave their lives to improving the lives of the people in this country, without worrying the details too much about whose “good thing” they upset while doing it. We need a bit of that mojo today.

The other legacy of the Kennedys is their singular focus on service to the public. I’m no starry eyed Camelot worshiper, but its clear that John, Bobby and Ted could all have chosen successful, private lives in law or finance. They all chose the hardscrabble world of politics and gave their lives to the task of serving their constituents. The many testimonials that have come out in the past few days show that Sen. Kennedy was never above the small gesture: a personal letter or phone call to a constituent in need — or some maneuvering behind the scenes to help shepherd an important project through Congress. In this, the age of the “uncontested ballot,” we would all do well to recall the importance they placed on public service and the sense of duty to serve the public that they all carried. Senator Kennedy may have been the last of his kind, but it doesn’t need to be so…and I hope it isn’t.