Ted Kennedy has beaten the odds before. Fourteen years ago, it looked as if Kennedy would be forcibly retired from the US Senate, where he had served for more than three decades. His Republican challenger was a then-fresh-faced novice named Mitt Romney. Polls showed that more than half of Massachusetts voters thought it was time for Kennedy to make way for new talent. Kennedy’s failed presidential bid was 14 years behind him; his awkward silence during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings suggested that his days of relevance were over. Kennedy, however, came back. Animated by the legendary energy of his legendary family, fortified by a stoic resilience, Kennedy proved himself to be a virtual force of nature.
The indefatigable Kennedy, now 76, has recently seemed more energetic, more passionate, and more vital than ever. He has thrown himself vigorously behind the cause of Barack Obama (as he had with the campaign of John Kerry), led the charge to expose the lies and misdeeds of the Bush administration, fought to protect Massachusetts jobs and funding, and passed legislation that would have been impossible without his guiding hand.
Forget relevant; Kennedy today seems indispensable. That makes the news that he is suffering from a malignant brain tumor all the more shocking and sobering.
Kennedy had surgery for a partially blocked neck artery just seven months ago — reportedly his first serious hospitalization since breaking several bones in a small-plane crash in 1964.
The treatment only briefly interrupted his stumping for congressional candidate Niki Tsongas; then it was right back to Washington to grill attorney-general nominee Michael Mukasey — one of many recent hearings that have seen the top figures in the military and justice departments get a tongue-lashing from the “liberal lion” of the US Senate.
In January, Kennedy proved himself more forward-looking than many of his younger colleagues; he rejected the insiders’ choice of Clinton, and shook up the presidential race by endorsing Obama — comparing the young Illinois senator to his brothers John and Bobby.
It was not merely an endorsement. Kennedy made the announcement at a rousing rally that was treated by national media as one of the biggest political events of the campaign. He then stumped nationally for Obama — in particular among Hispanics. The Globe’s Susan Milligan reported at the time that “to the hundreds of East Los Angeles residents who turned out to see the senior Massachusetts senator . . . Edward M. Kennedy is still a Democratic rock star.”
Meanwhile Kennedy continues, after all these years, to provide a daily master class in juggling ideological conviction and political compromise. Take as examples two of the most divisive issues of the day: gay marriage and immigration. On the former, most leading Democrats have cowered and pandered — but not Kennedy, who this past week unequivocally hailed the California ruling. On the latter, he very nearly forged a new law across a bitter ideological divide, co-sponsoring legislation with none other than John McCain. (In fact, there are few Republicans in the Senate who have not co-sponsored bills with Kennedy.)
Far from winding down, Kennedy has been gearing up, in anticipation of a Democratic president to work with. In preparation for a full-scale attempt to finally conquer national health-care reform next year, Kennedy recently hired John McDonough, executive director of Massachusetts Health Care for All and a key architect of the Commonwealth’s reform, as a legislative aide.
And in November, Kennedy signed a book deal with Hachette Book Group for his memoirs, to finally write his own account of a life that has been, truly, a front-row seat to modern American history. We certainly hope there is time enough now for him to fulfill that contract.
Above all, of course, he continues to take care of the people of Massachusetts, whether fighting to save jobs at Otis Air Force Base or squeezing more than $13 million in disaster relief for the state’s fishermen a few months ago.
But it’s more than delivering the bacon. Ask the 150 members of the 220th Transportation Company, an Army reserve unit based in Massachusetts.
They had been serving in Iraq for a year, escorting supply convoys along dangerous roads during some of the worst months of the war. They returned in August 2006, flying from Iraq into Camp Atterbury, in Indiana.
From there, the Army was going to send them back to Boston — by bus, an 18-hour ride.
Kennedy found out. At the last minute, the Secretary of the Army ordered the company flown home on a special charter. Why? “The senator’s request had a big impact,” the secretary was quoted as saying the next day.
Kennedy has had a huge impact, indeed. When the day comes, his will be giant shoes to fill. We hope that day remains far off. But if — sadly, as is likely — it comes sooner than later, it will be the first open Senate seat in Massachusetts in almost a quarter-century.