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Mickey Edwards
Political leader

Mickey Edwards

Former U.S. Congressman, Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the Institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.

Passion Without Invective

Ted Kennedy, by the end of his life, was respected even by those who disagreed most strongly with his political point of view, and he was respected primarily for his leadership skills. This was an assessment few could have expected when he began his Senate career.

When elected Senator of Massachusetts, Kennedy had a singular qualification: He was the brother of the president and therefore, or so he claimed, he could get more federal largesse for his state. That connection was who, and what, Edward Kennedy was.

His lifestyle was . . . interesting. He was sufficiently lacking in intellectual depth that when he announced a campaign for the presidency, he could think of no reason why he should be elected other than a vague sense of family commitment to public service. His fans cheered, but that was because he was a liberal and a Kennedy: There was no visible leadership component to his persona.

Denied the presidency, his public life to be defined by service in the Senate rather than in the White House, Kennedy emerged as a leader whose weaknesses -- lifestyle, uncertain motivation, and dependence on his family name -- were eventually overshadowed by three particular strengths:

First, an unwavering passion for a few important issues (education and health care at the top of the list), and here his strength was threefold -- the importance of the issues he chose, the narrowness of his focus, and the perseverance with which he addressed those chosen topics.

Second, a loftiness of character: The senator known earlier for his free-wheeling life became a study in serious commitment to transcendent issues and a rare (in these days) ability to embody passion without invective. Kennedy could denounce opposing views with the best of the true believers, but he did so without stooping to name-calling his political opponents. He was, in other words, tough and unrelenting but not unfair or nasty. Finally, this true-blue liberal Democratic loyalist visibly placed principle, in the form of policy goals, above narrow partisanship, leading him to work effectively with Republicans and Conservatives when it was possible to find common ground.

Ted Kennedy was not a world leader (that was not his stage, other than his work in regard to the partisan wars of Ireland), nor was he a national political leader (his liberalism narrowed his appeal, other than to fellow believers) but the man who became a senator because he had a brother in the White House became, in time, an undisputed leader of the most powerful branch of American government.

By Mickey Edwards

 |  August 27, 2009; 10:42 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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