Outside editorial: The complexities and legacy of Ted Kennedy

Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy was a man of great complexity and apparent contradictions.

He was born to one of America's wealthiest families, yet spent much of his life fighting for the poor. He was an unabashed liberal in an era of rising conservatism, yet was a master of working with his Republican opponents to get legislation passed. He was a playboy and carouser who repeatedly undercut his career with his personal failings, yet in the end became one of the most serious, committed, persevering lawmakers in the country's history.

And while widely regarded in the first decades of his life as the least capable of the Kennedy brothers, in the end his legacy was that he had a greater political and policy impact than any of the others. Kennedy became a favorite target of conservatives for much of the past 20 years, and understandably so, given his passionate liberalism. His record, though, was one of far-reaching accomplishments often produced with the cooperation of his political foes.

He led the fight for some of the most important legislation of the past 40 years. Most members of Congress can't say they led the way on even a couple of programs so lasting. Among the legislation and programs Kennedy was instrumental in creating: the Americans with Disabilities Act, the S-CHIP program that provides health insurance to poor children, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, COBRA, family leave, No Child Left Behind, Meals on Wheels and OSHA. He was a player in establishing peace in Ireland, fought for sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, and opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

He was compassionate, and stood up for the little guy throughout his Senate career. He fought for minimum wage hikes, renewal of the Voting Rights Act and countless housing, education and health programs. And, of course, his fight for universal health care was the fight of his life.

He also had huge flaws. He was expelled from Harvard in 1951 after cheating on a freshman Spanish exam. He always enjoyed a good party, including an alcohol-laden night in Palm Beach with his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, that prompted a rape charge against Smith.

And, of course, there was Chappaquiddick. On July 18, 1969, Kennedy, then 37, left a party with Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, a former campaign worker for Bobby Kennedy. He drove off a bridge into 8 feet of water. He swam to safety and fled from the scene. Kopechne drowned. Kennedy did not report the accident to authorities for 10 hours. Later, he rightly described his behavior as "indefensible."

It sank any presidential hopes he might have had in 1972 and 1976, and for some will permanently overshadow all his other accomplishments.

When he lost a presidential bid to Jimmy Carter in 1980, he seemed finally freed of others' expectations. He recommitted himself to the Senate. And through a mix of longevity, passion, compassion and hard work, he will be remembered as one of the most effective senators of our time.

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