Ted's Turning Point

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Posted by The Green Miles

I grew up in Boston during a bit of an Office Space moment for Ted Kennedy. His presidential ambitions had failed, he'd embarrassed us with scandal after scandal, and there was some question about his interest in legislating. Many voters looked at him and legitimately asked, "What would you say ... you do here?"

That led to Ted getting his first serious challenge for his U.S. Senate seat from a young Republican named Mitt Romney. Polls in the summer showed Kennedy and Romney in a dead heat. Despite being a carpetbagger and born with a silver spoon in his mouth, many voters (including me) gave Romney a fair hearing simply because it seemed to be time for change.

And it was, but not in the way anyone expected. It was Ted who changed. He re-dedicated himself to the people of Massachusetts, to his Senate seat, and to the progressive causes we all care so much about.

The race turned on an October debate held at Fanueil Hall. It had the feel of an old-time heavyweight boxing match -- held not on some bucolic college campus but in a tightly-packed hall in the middle of downtown Boston. Thousands of people who couldn't get into the debate rallied outside (including my union carpenter cousin on one side and a conservative uncle on the other), adding to the atmosphere.

Ted didn't just mop the floor with Romney. He delivered a vigorous defense of the liberal ideals he'd spend his life working to advance. At a time of weak, apologetic, defensive liberalism, that night showed me the possibilities of an idealistic, energetic progressivism. The spark from that night kept burning through the Republican takeover of Congress that November.

That's when Ted became the Liberal Lion of the Senate -- America's most impassioned advocate for the most vulnerable among us. At a time when the new progressive movement was still getting its legs under it, Kennedy was one of the few members of the old guard willing to take political hits by standing up against opportunistic political attacks on immigrants, the LGBT community and the poor. The fire burned through the darkest years of the Bush administration and continued as Ted passed the torch to that new generation of progressives with his endorsement of Barack Obama.

To know how great Ted Kennedy was, you have to know how low he was in the summer of 1994. Ted had already served a long, successful political life. There would have been no shame in fading into history.

But at the age of 62, he reinvented himself as something no one thought he would become -- a bridge from my grandparents' generation of progressives (Jack) to my parents' generation of progressives (Ted) to my generation of progressives (Barack).

That's how I'll remember Ted Kennedy. I only wish he could've stuck around long enough to cast a vote for health insurance reform, his number one issue. Let's get it done for Teddy.