Tuesday, May 20, 2008

As Kennedy Faces Tumor, Remember All He's Done for This Country

The headline hit me like a stake through the heart: Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor.

I have always found it appalling how conservatives use Kennedy as a punch line. Yeah, the guy had his troubles, from Chappaquiddick to alcohol abuse and several unsavory family incidents in between. But when history looks back on Kennedy's life and career, his problems will be a footnote to a much larger and more important story on perseverance, strength and accomplishment.

Here is a man who lost his oldest brother in World War II and his remaining two older brothers to political assassination, leaving him at the age of 36 with the awesome responsibility of taking on the leadership mantle for a high-profile political family often likened to American royalty. Can you imagine how conservatives would react if anyone threw eggs (as they do all the time at Kennedy) at a conservative politician with a parallel history of loss? The outrage would be monumental. Rush Limbaugh would shatter a sphygmomanometer (it's one of these) and Bill O'Reilly would call for a federal investigation (but it would take him multiple takes -- interspersed with verbal attacks on his producer -- to do it).

When Kennedy's career does come to an end, what he should be remembered for is the courage he showed in being a consistent liberal voice no matter how unfashionable the times held such conviction. When you consider how conservatives pillory Hillary Clinton for operating as a spineless political animal, you would think Kennedy's steadfast defense of traditional liberal values would earn him respect, even if the right wingers disagreed with his politics. Maybe I'm giving his opponents too much credit.

I know that to me, personally, during times when it was unfashionable, Kennedy was a beacon, a constant reminder that there was no shame in being liberal. When Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity, Kennedy was one of the few voices of dissent, rejecting Reagan's trickle-down economics and tax cuts, opposing things like oil subsidies tucked into the tax-cut legislation.

Even more importantly, on October 11, 2002, 13 months to the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, only 21 senators had the sound judgment and moral fortitude to defy the fear-mongering and false patriotism of the administration and the fear of political reprisals to vote against the resolution authorizing George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. Kennedy was one of those 21 senators.

To put the issue in perspective, here is a list of Democratic senators from blue (that is, fairly safe) states that voted in favor of the war: Joe Biden (Del.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Thomas Carper (Del.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Diane Feinstein (Calif.), John Kerry (Mass.), Herb Kohl (Wisc.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Robert Toricelli (N.J.). Clearly, some of the senators, like Lieberman, made a choice based on their beliefs that giving Bush war power as a tool against Iraq was a smart move. But you have to figure, given the political and social climate at the time, that more of the "yes" votes were made to protect against attacks in future campaigns.

Clinton and her supporters have argued that Barack Obama's opposition to the war was meaningless because he didn't have to actually cast a vote in the Senate on the resolution. Well, Kennedy did have to make a decision, and unlike Clinton and nearly 30 other Democrats, he voted against the war, a stand that has been more than vindicated five-plus years later.

As stalwart as Kennedy is in supporting liberal causes, he has not been afraid to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans. He might be a symbol of modern liberalism in the senate, but he has behaved as a flesh-and-blood human being, not some kind of single-minded ideologue. His friendship with ultra-conservative Utah senator Orrin Hatch is well-known in Washington. And it was just this past year that Kennedy teamed up with conservative senator John McCain (yes, he is conservative, voting with Bush 43 of 44 times in 2007) to produce a compromise bill on immigration.

And despite Kennedy's early struggles with his personal demons, he did eventually get them under control, living a healthier life, settling down with a wife, and comporting himself like one of the elder statesman in the senate.

I hope Kennedy successfully fights this tumor and suffers as little as possible. The man has suffered enough in his life. The right-wing crazies like Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Ann Coulter may want to turn Kennedy's life into a joke. I hope that as he battles this latest setback, he is given the respect he has earned through a life of public service. We have a much better country because of Ted Kennedy. I just hope that people remember that in the weeks and months ahead.