Ted Kennedy and Hineni!

September 12, 2014

I’m a fan! I think Senator Edward Kennedy was an extraordinary public servant whose accomplishments have made life better for all of us. Perfect? Absolutely not. Extraordinarily flawed? Absolutely. No one knows what really happened 45 years ago off Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, but it was surely nothing good, and a young woman died. Bad!!! And there’s more. Drinking, cheating, etc. Nothing to be proud of, and for way too many years!

Alas, somehow this man found time and energy to accomplish so much. Without Ted Kennedy there is no Affordable Care Act, for his leadership in the late 1960s and 1970s brought forth the Clinton effort and, now, the Affordable Care Act. (For naysayers, read The Medical Miracle by Paul Krugman in the New York Times on August 31. With citations he documents the impact of the ACA on health care spending, and the minimal year two increases in insurance premiums.)

There’s so much more, though. Immigration; peace in Northern Ireland; campaign finance reform; deregulation of the trucking industry and the airlines; COBRA; no Justice Robert Bork; the Americans with Disabilities Act; the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA); et cetera. Senator Ted Kennedy was a tour de force in the U.S. Senate, especially after his failed Presidential campaign in 1980. (Not everything turned out well, for sure, as critics of deregulation note. On the other hand, inherent in such criticism is the assumption—probably false—that the status quo ante was possible.)

I wrote this piece because I happened on The Day I Met Ted Kennedy  by Senator Elizabeth Warren, posted at Daily Kos on August 25. The post is brief, but it’s the 6:21 video that counts. Now, I’m pretty sure I’ve got readers who are not members of the Kennedy/Warren Fan Club, so the notion that Ted Kennedy inspired Elizabeth Warren won’t sit well with everyone. The video does, however, focus on public service. It’s not about votes, or being important or recognized, for Senator Warren acknowledges that she needed Senator Kennedy far, far more than he needed her. Instead, it’s about standing up and saying—well, it’s not how Senator Kennedy would put it, but it’s a word I’ve used often enough that there were t-shirts—Hineni, or “here I am.” The phrase comes from Genesis 22, when G-d directs Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham says, repeatedly, “Here I am.” Now, Elizabeth Warren, law professor at Harvard Law School, was hardly G-d, but Ted Kennedy understood his role—the issue was fighting, mostly unsuccessfully, as it happens, changes in the bankruptcy laws—and took it on! He stepped up!

Three more things about Senator Ted Kennedy:

  • Do any of us know who we’d be if we were child #9 in a family of nine, with bizarre, absentee parents? Losing two siblings in plane crashes before age 16? Seeing two brothers murdered on film? Surviving a plane crash? A child with cancer, and another with mental health and substance abuse issues? No excuses here, and we’re all responsible for our own lives, but this was hardly a man with a normal upbringing or life, and some of that may explain the horrible lapses.
  • In True Compass, Senator Kennedy’s very fine memoir—published soon after he died, five years ago—there’s a recounting that, without fail, day in and day out, year by year, decade after decade, Senator Ted Kennedy called constituents every night. Dialing them up, alone, from home or some hotel room. (Nothing “staffed out.”) Sick people. People who’d lost a family member or a job. People with successes to celebrate. Good politics? Sure. Necessary? No. In his closest Senate race he beat Mitt Romney 58-41, after an early scare. Unusual? I think so! He got it when it came to connecting with people!
  • We have a personal connection in our house. Ms. J, our daughter, and I attended the Isaac Marks lecture, associated with the Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, given by Senator Kennedy in 2004. Our daughter was 12, and this was not her thing. Go she did, though, and after a lecture that included a recounting of going to a Kinko’s to make copies of materials for a program at a grand-niece’s school, our daughter approached Senator Kennedy for a “grip and grin” photo op. He asked her for her name, and when he started writing her name on the autograph card, beginning with a K, she said, “Um, excuse me, it’s kind of weird, but my name starts with a C.” “That’s not weird at all,” he said, and flipped over and re-signed the card. The picture, with the autograph, hangs in our study.

I know many people think this man was a common criminal who deserved everything bad that came his way. For me, though, he’s a hero, flawed for sure, but someone who always said “here I am” when he was needed. He’s sorely missed in these tough times!

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