Ted Kennedy wanted the public option

His list of achievements is epic, but he worked to fix healthcare for 40 years. Let's finish the job in his name

Published August 28, 2009 10:27AM (EDT)

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. speaks during a news conference on immigration reform, Tuesday, June 5, 2007, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. speaks during a news conference on immigration reform, Tuesday, June 5, 2007, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The rise of Edward M. Kennedy to the greatness now so broadly acknowledged with his passing was a process of years and decades, a journey interrupted by family tragedy and personal failure, a story of focus, determination and principle that placed him in the pantheon of America's most influential statesmen.

Kennedy worked hard for what he became. Those qualities that meant so much in the Senate — from his marvelous gift for friendship to his eagle eye for intellectual talent to his strategic parliamentary skills — surely could have served very different purposes than the important causes he adopted as his own. All that passion, charm, exuberance and competitive drive might have been directed toward much smaller things. Or he might have turned away from the harshness of politics, which often placed his own flaws under unforgiving scrutiny, instead sailing his boat and tending the monuments to his fallen brothers John and Robert.

Now much is being said and written about supposed contrasts with those otherKennedys, who are remembered as more pragmatic and less progressive than he. Much is being said and written, too, about how unpromising and aimless he seemed during his youth, when he was ushered so comfortably through Harvard, the Army and into the Senate, and then the prolonged adolescence that brought misconduct, embarrassment and the tragedy at Chappaquiddick.

Yet those redundant observations possess little meaning in assessing a political career of nearly 50 years. Kennedy's life was a continuation of what his older brothers began, and his political character was formed under their tutelage. They were each liberals in and of their time, as was he. Kennedy was privileged and perhaps arrogant, but no more so than the scions of the Bush clan or many another wealthy politician. His ignominious episodes no longer shock in an era when the iniquity of the righteous right-wing seems to be exposed every day.

What matters about Kennedy — and what he would want remembered about him — is what he did in his resolute, enduring effort to better the lives of Americans, and perhaps how he did it. What deserves to be discussed in detail, beyond anecdote and gossip, is that incomparable record of hundreds of legislative acts that improved education, healthcare, consumer protection, environmental preservation, working conditions, national service, government integrity, human rights, racial and sexual equality, and foreign policy.

The sheer scope of Kennedy's work is simply staggering. The beneficiaries of his achievement numbered in the many millions. They were poor, elderly, women, gays, minorities, immigrants, veterans, students, workers, the disabled, the mentally ill and, perhaps above all, children. To catalog the landmark bills that he sponsored and managed into law is a challenge; to enumerate his entire achievement may be virtually impossible.

Drawing up lists of bills and amendments is inevitably a dry exercise, but it is Kennedy's spirit of compassion that lives in every human being touched by those laws. The homage we owe him is to honor his bedrock belief that government must lift up the oppressed and defend the defenseless.

Nothing was more important to him than bringing government power and resources to the assistance of families and children in or near poverty. As a young senator he helped to start the Legal Services Corporation that advanced the interests of the poor in court, and then defended that institution from the Reaganite plan to destroy it. Year after year, he fought to increase the minimum wage, even when the Republicans were in power and there was no chance that an increase would pass. He led every effort to extend and increase unemployment benefits from one recession to the next, often at times when the unemployed seemed invisible to most of society. Last year, while suffering from the cancer that killed him, he pushed through another 20 weeks of compensation to workers who had lost their jobs in the recession.

He was an unabashed supporter of workers' right to organize, as the chief sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, and a keen defender of contractual rights as well. He led the fight for passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Clinton administration bill that guaranteed unpaid leave to employees needing time to care for a new baby or the serious illness of a child, parent or spouse. Three years ago, he sponsored the Pension Protection Act, regarded as the most significant pension bill in the past 30 years.

Back in 1989, Kennedy helped to pass the National Military Child Care Act, which established the Defense Department child care system that continues to be among the finest in the country. Ten years later, he established federal funding for the training of pediatricians and pediatric specialists — the tongue-twisting Children's Hospitals Graduate Medical Education Program, or CHGME — which rectified the financial shortchanging of children's hospitals and research facilities by the Medicare reimbursement system (and helped to educate thousands of doctors who heal kids).

Much better known, of course, was his long battle for the Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP or SCHIP, which has provided healthcare to millions of low-income children whose families could not afford insurance or qualify for Medicaid. Legislation or amendments he wrote were responsible for creation of the Early Head Start program, which provides prenatal services and early childhood development assistance to pregnant women and to low-income families with children under 3 years of age; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that subsidizes adequate food and nutrition counseling for millions of low-income mothers, their infants and young children; and the COBRA program that permits workers to temporarily continue receiving health insurance when they are laid off or fired from their jobs. With the cosponsorship of Charles Grassley, the dim Iowa Republican who now seems determined to kill healthcare reform, he passed the Family Opportunity Act in 2006, which enabled working families to purchase Medicaid insurance for their disabled children, rather than lose healthcare when their wages went up.

The summary above does not begin to dent, let alone exhaust, Kennedy's legislative attainments. A list of his landmarks would begin with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, passed when he was still a freshman, which eliminated discriminatory ethnic quotas for immigrants. That list would have to include well over a dozen education and civil rights bills, notably the Pell Grants (named for his collaborator, the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I.), the reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Star Schools Assistance Act for Math and Science Education, the College Cost Reduction Act, the Higher Education Act, the National Service Act (which created the AmeriCorps program), and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

While the bulk of Kennedy's achievements lie in domestic policy, his contributions to democracy at home and abroad shouldn't be slighted. He wrote the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which protects Americans from illicit eavesdropping and wiretapping by intelligence agencies, and he coauthored the first post-Watergate bills that provided public financing for presidential elections and established limits on political contributions in presidential campaigns. He sponsored the bill that lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18, because he believed that anyone old enough to serve in war must be old enough to vote. He was a leading opponent of apartheid in South Africa, a dedicated foe of dictatorships in countries ranging from South Korea to Chile, and an early, courageous opponent of the war in Iraq.

In all of these endeavors, Kennedy fashioned coalitions when he could, and he acted alone when he had no other choice. Looking over the sponsors of the bills that he passed, it is striking to see how many times he was able to persuade a very conservative Republican to join him on the side of progress.

It is true that Kennedy, the friendly warrior, excelled in bipartisanship. Nearly all of the domestic reforms mentioned here were sponsored by at least one Republican senator. But in every case, those stodgy conservatives were cajoled and whispered (and perhaps shamed) into venturing much closer to Kennedy's perspective. He drew them toward him, invariably against their own habits, not by selling out his progressive goal, but by appealing to the decency he perceived in them.

Forty years ago he began the quest for universal healthcare that became the cause of his life when he introduced his first bill outlining that goal. His final bequest to the Senate is the Affordable Health Choices Act, his version of the Obama administration's reform proposals, which was passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month. Republicans now say that if Kennedy had not been forced by illness to relinquish the chairmanship of that committee, he would have negotiated away the strongest provisions of that bill to win passage.

Kennedy's Republican friends should not make that disingenuous argument in his lamented absence. Lest there be any doubt about what he truly wanted, his bill includes a robust public option along with all the insurance reforms and cost controls that the president has endorsed since this process began.

How would he have handled the intransigence and dishonesty of the Republican opposition? We know that he could shout as well as whisper — and that he could be partisan as well as bipartisan. He believed that the time for incremental changes had passed. He was ready to fight. The tragedy of his death is not only that he didn't see the triumph he had dreamed, but that he fell before he could lead the nation to that final victory. Now that victory will have to be won in his name.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

MORE FROM Joe Conason

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ted Kennedy