Besides mourning, eulogizing and praising the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate — which he was — we fervently hope that Members of Congress will study and follow his example.
His personal history may have been deeply flawed, but he was as close to a model legislator as we can imagine — a man of passionate conviction and unswerving purposes who nevertheless befriended and worked with political adversaries, negotiated with them tirelessly, took half a loaf when he had to and accomplished truly great things, often on a bipartisan basis.
Before moving on from Kennedy remembrances and going back to business as usual, we hope Members in both parties will consider how different the Kennedy model is from the dismal Congressional norm.
Republicans and Democrats tend to be every bit as passionate, ideological and partisan as Kennedy surely was, but they spend more energy scheming for the defeat of their adversaries than finding ways to accomplish their ends by working together with them.
Practically every item in the long list of Kennedy achievements cited in his memorials was the product of bipartisan cooperation, and often co-sponsorship, including No Child Left Behind education reform with President George W. Bush, the Americans With Disabilities Act with Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the State Children’s Health Insurance Program with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, again with Dole.
The list goes on: airline and trucking deregulation, voting at age 18, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, Meals on Wheels, national service, immigration law, health care portability, Title IX. They all were the product of negotiation, firm dedication to a long-term purpose, but also a willingness to make compromises.
For sure, Kennedy was far from perfect, politically as well as personally. Chappaquiddick, heavy drinking and womanizing aside, his 1980 presidential campaign was a disaster from beginning to end. His 1987 denunciation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was not only excessive in its rhetoric, but delivered within 45 minutes of the nomination, before any hearings.
Yet, Kennedy was also a man of enormous personal warmth and kindness, a legislator who consistently assembled the best staff on Capitol Hill — and whose members remained loyal to him for life. He goes down in history not only as the third-longest-serving Senator, but among the greatest, on par with Daniel Webster (Mass.) and Henry Clay (Ky.).
At his memorial service, his friend Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) looked forward to this month, this moment in time, when “the blistering days of August will be replaced, I pray, by the cooler days of September.
“And we will prevail in a way Teddy won so many victories for our nation — by listening to each other, by respecting each other and the seriousness of the institution to which we belong.—
Dodd was referring specifically to Kennedy’s self-described life purpose of health care reform.
But “listening to each other— and “respecting each other and the seriousness of the institution— is what Members ought to do all the time — in Kennedy’s memory and for the sake of the nation.