To anyone under the age of 30, the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who died Tuesday night, must have seemed like an eccentric uncle from a bygone era. Portly and florid-faced, with a bellowing voice, Kennedy in his old age bore a resemblance not to his glamorous brothers but, rather, to his grandfather John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who served as mayor of Boston at the turn of the last century.

But what did Kennedy actually do? The answer: More than I can possibly detail here. He was the author of more than 2,500 bills and the driving force behind many of the most important liberal initiatives of the past 50 years. His biographer Adam Clymer wrote in 1999 that Kennedy “deserves recognition not just as the leading senator of his time, but as one of the greats in its history.”

If you’re a student dependent on federal loans to attend college, Ted Kennedy was there for you.

If you use a wheelchair and are worried that an employer might discriminate against you, the Americans with Disabilities Act “" another Kennedy legacy “" will protect you.

If you’re barely scraping by at a minimum-wage job, your wages would be even lower were it not for Kennedy’s tireless efforts on behalf of the working poor.

And though Kennedy never succeeded in his decades-long quest for universal health care, he managed “" by working with Republican senators such as his unlikely friend Orrin Hatch of Utah “" to extend coverage to poor children who had previously fallen through the cracks.

As Boston Globe reporter Susan Milligan writes, Kennedy’s name also appears on hundreds of bills that don’t necessarily fit with his liberal image, but that helped shape American society in profound ways “" from deregulation of the airline industry to helping the second President Bush pass his No Child Left Behind legislation “" an action Kennedy came to regret after Bush refused to fund it fully.

And when Bush broke the law by ordering secret, warrantless wiretaps as part of his anti-terrorism efforts, it was a law “" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act “" that Kennedy had helped write some three decades earlier.

Ted Kennedy was a deeply flawed human being whose many years of boozing and womanizing had, by the early ’90s, made him a symbol of excess. A night of drinking in Palm Beach, Fla., leading to rape charges against his nephew William Kennedy Smith (who was acquitted), nearly ended his career “" a career that may well have culminated in the presidency were it not for an earlier scandal over his role in the death of a young campaign aide named Mary Jo Kopechne.

By 1994, Kennedy was on the ropes and vulnerable to a challenge. The Republican candidate that year was Mitt Romney, a telegenic Republican businessman whose crisp soundbites, wholesome lifestyle, and vague if generally liberal agenda seemed more than a match for the aging incumbent.

Yet Kennedy, newly remarried and with his self-acknowledged alcohol problem apparently under control, rose to the occasion, besting Romney in a nationally televised debate at Faneuil Hall in which he brilliantly (if unfairly) invoked the memory of his dead brothers in response to one of Romney’s attacks. (Romney later served as governor of Massachusetts, and ran for president in 2008.)

Kennedy was not above petty politics. I recall following him around Burlington one day in the late 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn. Kennedy had just sneaked an amendment into a bill to deny Rupert Murdoch the regulatory waiver he was seeking that would allow him to own both the Boston Herald and WFXT-TV (Channel 25), which Murdoch had just purchased. At every stop, Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief would ask him, “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?”

If Kennedy’s ploy had been aimed at shutting down the Herald, as many suspected, it didn’t work: Murdoch kept the paper and sold the TV station. (Several years later, he sold the Herald to his longtime protƒ©gƒ© Pat Purcell and repurchased Channel 25.) The episode led Kennedy’s most caustic critic at the Herald, columnist Howie Carr, to write a particularly memorable lede: “Was it something I said, Fat Boy?”

In a few days, the focus will turn to the question of who will be Kennedy’s successor in the U.S. Senate. The special election that will be held five months from now is likely to be the most wide-open we have seen in Massachusetts since 1984, when Sen. Paul Tsongas retired and was succeeded by John Kerry.

But the next senator from Massachusetts will not match Ted Kennedy’s influence or power. What’s especially sad about his death is that, at his vigorous best, he could have made the difference in President Obama’s push for universal health care, a push that, at the moment, seems to be going nowhere.

Perhaps Democrats and Republicans alike will honor Kennedy’s legacy by coming to an agreement on a bill that will bear his name.

About The Author

Dan Kennedy, who is not related to the late senator, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a columnist for the Guardian and a commentator on the public-television program “Beat the Press.” He blogs at Media Nation.

4 Responses

  1. Andrew de Geofroy

    Kennedy’s a personal hero of mine; an inspiration and one of the reasons I want to eventually get into politics. Many Gen-Y people don’t know how important he really was, but you did a great job of explaining exactly why his life and death mean so much to so many.


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