Toward the end of George McGovern�s failed presidential bid
in 1972, I was helping advance a bus trip for vice presidential candidate
Sargent Shriver. The final weekend of the campaign, his caravan would start in
New Hampshire and work its way down the Eastern seaboard, holding rallies along
the way and winding up in Washington, DC, just before Election Day.
As we spoke with mayors whose cities would be visited, the
draw wasn�t Shriver but the news that his brother-in-law, Senator Ted Kennedy,
would be accompanying him. Even though Chappaquiddick had taken place just a
little more than three years before, it was the Kennedy charisma, the power of
that family that still got even the most seasoned local politico excited.
Imagine how popular we were a few days later when we had to
go back to tell them Teddy wasn�t coming. His bad back from that near fatal
plane crash in 1964 made a long bus journey impossible to endure. Shriver still
drew crowds but it just wasn�t the same.
Nearly 20 years later, I ran into Kennedy on an escalator at
the AFL-CIO convention in Detroit as he arrived to make a speech. No bodyguards
(visible, anyway), no entourage. I thought that I had never seen him look so
healthy and vigorous. The gregariousness that made him such a consummate
politician was on full display as we chatted and he loudly greeted union
officials as we ascended, each a hail fellow, well met.
To those belonging to the post-baby boomer generations, it
may be difficult to comprehend the change that took place in America when Ted
Kennedy�s older brother Jack became president in 1961 -- although the
successful embracing of the Obama candidacy by young people comes close.
As we ended the years of the Eisenhower administration, even
though the nation was more prosperous than ever, there was a grayness to
everyday life that seemed to shift to Technicolor with the advent of those
brief Kennedy years, like Dorothy shaking off the dust of Kansas for Oz.
John F. Kennedy�s presidential race against Richard Nixon
split my family neatly in two. My dad and older brother were for Nixon, my
mother and I favored JFK (but I still have a gold Nixon tie clip my father
prized, with an engraved caricature of Tricky Dick that looks more like Bob
Hope than the presidential incubus we all came to know and love).
My father and brother came around. I witnessed Kennedy�s
inauguration on the elementary school�s TV set, and was allowed to stay up late
to watch the inaugural balls. My mother kept scrapbooks about Jack and Jackie
and Caroline and John-John. All of us snapped up stories about family life in
the White House and wept when the president died in Dallas. A few years later
we would do the same for Bobby.
As time went by, we would learn that we had been fooled
about a lot of it; that the Wizard was a man behind a curtain, that much of the
Camelot legend�s glitter was media hype as bogus as fool�s gold. But there
remained about the Kennedy family a sort of grand, Shakespearean sublimity that
applied as equally to the hubris and heartbreak as the good luck and
Or, in the words of playwright, journalist and Republican
Clare Boothe Luce, cited in some of this week�s obituaries, �Where else but in
gothic fiction, where else among real people could one encounter such triumphs
and tragedies, such beauty and charm and ambition and pride and human wreckage,
such dedication to the best and lapses into the mire of life; such vulgar,
noble, driven, generous, self-centered, loving, suspicious, devious, honorable,
vulnerable, indomitable people?�
But how interesting that despite their grossest and most
callow foibles and failings, throughout the life and times of the three Kennedy
brothers who survived their older brother Joe there was a deep, moral concern
for the nation�s health that continued right up through Ted Kennedy�s death.
Notice in their memories of him this week how many friends and colleagues
mentioned help that Senator Kennedy got for them during medical crises of their
Vice President Joe Biden remembered that when his two sons
were recovering from the car crash that took the life of his wife and daughter
in 1972, Kennedy �was on the phone with me literally ever day in the hospital .
. . I�d turn around and there would be some specialist from Massachusetts, a
doc I had never even asked for, literally sitting in the room with me.�
And in Thursday�s WASHINGTON POST, Howard Kurtz reported
that, �Chris Matthews, a Type 2 diabetic, spoke of Kennedy calling him with
advice after the �Hardball� host had an attack of hypoglycemia. Paul Begala, a
Democratic strategist, recalled on CNN that when his father had received a
cancer diagnosis, Kennedy called and �gave me the name of one of the world�s
foremost experts in cancer treatment. He said, �He�s expecting your call. I
just talked to him.� And he helped pave the way to get my father the treatment
that, frankly, saved his life.��
Perhaps such concern was inspired by the example of the
matriarch Rose�s selfless devotion to service in the name of the Catholic
Church or simply all the time the Kennedy family has spent in hospital wards
through the years, nursing or mourning their own.
The first time I ever heard the dreaded phrase �socialized
medicine� was during John F. Kennedy�s presidency, when the GOP fought his
administration�s attempts at health care reform. And during his own, all too brief
presidential campaign in 1968, when Bobby Kennedy told audiences that decent
medical care should not be a luxury of the rich, he quoted Aristotle: �If we
believe men have any personal rights at all, then they must have an absolute
moral right to such a measure of good health as society can provide.�
The only one of the brothers to live beyond the age of 50
and make it to senior citizenship, Ted Kennedy honed his skills as a legislator
over nearly as many decades in the US Senate, and universal health care was, in
his words, the cause of his life.
Through his years there, Kennedy pushed for it incrementally
with the Americans with Disabilities Act, creation of the State Children�s
Health Insurance Program (S-Chip), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability
Act allowing folks to hang onto their insurance after leaving a job, the
creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), increased
funds for AIDS and cancer research and community medical centers.
But many believe the time for increments has passed. In
Edward Moore Kennedy�s name, it�s time to do the right thing, the big thing;
time to revive flagging support and step up to universal reform. Already there
has been far too much shouting and far too little healing.
In NEWSWEEK last month, Kennedy wrote with his longtime
speechwriter and advisor Bob Shrum, �I�ve thought in an even more powerful way
than before about what this will mean to others. And I am resolved to see to it
this year that we create a system to ensure that someday, when there is a cure
for the disease I now have, no American who needs it will be denied it.�
Ted Kennedy, resolute in his faith and passionately,
unabashedly liberal to the last breath, said he wanted �a good ending for
myself.� Universal health care -- at its best with a public option -- would be
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly
public affairs program, Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check
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