Winning Over My Mother
The impact Senator Edward M. Kennedy had on America will become clearer to the country during the coming week. His passion for justice, remarkable record of legislative accomplishments, and ability to persevere through his personal challenges offer important lessons to leaders.
First, I must acknowledge that I grew up in a family in which Ted Kennedy was regarded as the worst politician in America, deserving nothing but derision and punch lines. I first started coming to Washington D.C. in 1993 to promote national service. While many colleagues would be rock-concert excited when Senator Kennedy would attend or speak at an event, I would think it was terrible because his support would scare away Republicans and middle America.
It took me years to overcome the prejudice I was reared with and gain the respect and admiration I hold for him today, which has three elements:
First, he really put the "for all" behind American values like liberty, justice and equality. He was an unabashed champion of using politics to help all Americans have the opportunity to dream and achieve the American dream. His record of legislative accomplishments has improved the lives and life chances of millions. He never tempered his advocacy and used the art of persuasion to get the best deal he could for those who needed it most.
Second, he mastered the art of politics within the U.S. Senate to get things done. Steven Perlstein's column in The Washington Post details what was probably the most teachable moment in Senator Kennedy's career -- when his failure to compromise killed the possibility of passing universal health care in 1972. The resulting realism led him to build relationships across the aisle, master the parliamentary process, and mix his gifts for persuasion and effective compromise to get things done.
I saw the result of this realism when conservative Senator Orrin Hatch led the effort to pass the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act with a wide bi-partisan majority earlier this year. We were reminded of it again on Sunday when Senator McCain said that the health care bill would be in a different place if Senator Kennedy had been able to lead it in the Senate.
Third, he overcame both the shadow of his own mistakes and vices and the shadow of his older brothers. We all know about the personal scandals and how he persevered through them. But I imagine that the bigger shadow was that of his brothers. He had to distinguish himself in public life from two beloved and martyred brothers, whose own personal scandals or failings only posthumously chinked at their myths.
Senator Ted Kennedy was no younger brother or heir, though, but a leader whose legislative accomplishments really overshadow his brothers and most Presidents. In fact, I would argue that he would have accomplished less for the country as president in 1980 than he did as a legislator during the 29 years since.
On Wednesday night, I did two things to honor Senator Kennedy before I went to bed. I read to my children his delightful children's book, "My Senator and Me: A Dog-eyed View of Washington D.C." which introduces children to public service and how an education bill becomes a law through the eyes of his dog Splash. My kids love the book (and they are suckers for any book with a dog).
I also called my mother and told her how the majority of Republicans opposed Medicare in 1965 and confirmed that she had not either. I asked her if now that she is dependent on it, she is now grateful for Senator Kennedy and the Democrats for passing it. She said, "Yes." I probably could have roll called civil rights, disabilities, Title IX, and other bills that faced fierce opposition and received the same response. It is a remarkable record and America is better as a result of his leadership.
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