Maggie Mahar
Fellow at The Century Foundation

Maggie Mahar

Maggie Mahar is a fellow at The Century Foundation where she writes HealthBeat blog . She is the author of “Money-Driven Medicine."

Listen to Kennedy's 1980 Speech -- and Rally

While Senator Kennedy's death was expected, it still comes as a shock. I hope that shock is sufficient to rally progressives of all stripes, to come together and make an unswerving commitment to true health-care reform--reform designed to benefit patients, not the corporations that profit from our health-care system.

Today, many people are talking about the speech that Ted Kennedy delivered at the 1980 Democratic convention. Instead of substituting my prose for Kennedy's, I would like to quote high points from that speech for the many readers who either didn't hear it-- or don't remember it all of its richness. This was a speech written long before slippery political strategists had learned to "frame" ideas as bumper-stickers. In its eloquence, it shows great respect for the English language, for ideas, and for its audience. And, I think, it reminds health care reformers that this is not a time to "yield."

Kennedy had just lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter. And yet this was a full-hearted, rousing speech delivered by a man who realized that in the battle ahead, the issues at stake were far, far were more important than his own loss. Intuitively, he knew that the country had reached a turning point.

Today, politicians, pundits and even the public seem to see politics as a sport, a horse-race that's all about personalities and what the polls say about personalities-- who's ahead, who's behind--what the president could have done, should have done, to keep his poll ratings high.

Meanwhile there is far too little discussion of the ideas and issues at hand.. The press has become too caught up in the inflammatory politics of the debate--and the doubts planted by reform's opponents-- while ignoring the ideas and values at the heart of the debate.

By contrast, Kennedy's speech focused on issues, drawing a bright red line between a tradition of progressive change that he traced back to FDR and the new conservative ideology expressed by Ronald Reagan, who would be running against Jimmy Carter that fall.

He summed up Ronald Regan's ideology, and in so doing, offered a glimpse of the future:

"The same Republicans who are talking about the crisis of unemployment have nominated a man who once said, and I quote, 'Unemployment insurance is a prepaid vacation plan for freeloaders.' And that nominee is no friend of labor.

The same Republicans who are talking about the problems of the inner cities have nominated a man who said, and I quote, 'I have included in my morning and evening prayers every day the prayer that the Federal Government not bail out New York.' And that nominee is no friend of this city and our great urban centers across this Nation.

The same Republicans who are talking about security for the elderly have nominated a man who said just four years ago that 'Participation in social security should be made voluntary.' And that nominee is no friend of the senior citizens of this Nation.

The same Republicans who are talking about preserving the environment have nominated a man who last year made the preposterous statement, and I quote, 'Eighty percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.'"

And that nominee is no friend of the environment.

And the same Republicans who are invoking Franklin Roosevelt have nominated a man who said in 1976, and these are his exact words, "Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal." And that nominee whose name is Ronald Regan has no right to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The cadence was perfect. The applause, thunderous.

Toward the end of his speech, Kennedy zeroed on how conservatives wanted to "redistribute wealth:"

"The tax cut of our Republican opponents takes the name of tax reform in vain. It is a wonderfully Republican idea that would redistribute income in the wrong direction. It is good news for any of you with incomes over $200,000 a year. For the few of you, it offers a pot of gold worth $14,000. But the Republican tax cut is bad news for the middle income families."

1980 would indeed mark the beginning of "redistributing wealth in the wrong direction." From 1976 to 2006 the wealthiest 1 percent of all Americans enjoyed 232 percent of the gains in the nation's wealth while the bottom 90 percent reaped only 10 percent of the benefits. And in recent years, the trend accelerated. From 2002 to 2006, the share of the nation's income flowing to the top 1 percent climbed from 15.8 percent to 20.0 percent. Not since 1928, just before the Great Depression, has the top 1 percent held such a large share of the nation's income. As I have explained in the past, this is why it is fair to now ask the wealthiest 1.2 percent to pay higher taxes to help seed health care reform.

Kennedy ended his speech by rallying the troops:

"I am confident that the Democratic Party will reunite on the basis of Democratic principles, and that together we will march towards a Democratic victory in 1980.

And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again.

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

'I am a part of all that I have met....
Tho much is taken, much abides....
That which we are, we are--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
...strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

In 1980, the Democratic contest for the White House was seen, by many, as a bitter fight between two very different candidates. But today, when the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle seem so lacking in compassion, so bereft of the will, Kennedy and Carter stand out, more alike than different.

If we are going to achieve true health reform, we need more men and women with "heroic hearts, strong in will, determined to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
This is not a time for compromise, and I am hopeful that Ted Kennedy's death will cause policy-makers to find both the spine, and the compassion, to re-make our health care system.

By Maggie Mahar  |  August 27, 2009; 10:16 AM ET  | Category:  Health Care Reform Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Do the Right Thing | Next: Kennedy Reminds Us Whom We Are Fighting For


Please report offensive comments below.

I sadly realize no words can move the stone cold hearts of those opposed to insurance and health reform. So, I wonder if someone you hold dear suffers as a result of a catastrophic illness and a health insurance nightmare, will your eyes open and your heart soften?

Posted by: jama452 | August 27, 2009 1:03 PM
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