Michael Tomasky: Ted Kennedy made the US a better place





[Michael Tomasky is a columnist, journalist and author. He is currently the editor in chief of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and Editor of Guardian America as well as a contributing editor for The American Prospect.]

One would be hard pressed to argue that Ted Kennedy's death was a more bitter pill for the country than the deaths of his brothers before him – John, the young president whose assassination gave Americans a hard warning about the violent age they were about to enter, or Robert, the presidential aspirant who was thought at the time to be the last leader in America who might have been able to help the nation transcend that violence.

Nevertheless, the heavens have somehow conspired to make this Kennedy death, however expected it might have been, nearly as heartbreaking as those of his vigorous younger brothers. It's not just that the great cause of the last 40 years of his life, reforming America's healthcare system, sits at a perilous juncture, although it certainly is that, in part. But the tragic irony of the timing is even greater, because we see in the very healthcare debate that so needed his input the precarious state of the institution to which he devoted his life, and which he shaped and influenced more than probably any other senator in history.

The United States Senate was rarely a force for progress through much of its history. Originally, senators weren't even directly elected. They tended to be men who at the very least would look after the interests of the railroad and mining and sugar industries, and preferably were members of families with those interests.

Then, in the mid-20th century, something different started to happen. As access to higher education became more widespread – and with the idea of public service not yet thought of in terms of the opportunity cost of not being a lobbyist or corporate lawyer instead – a different breed of person started entering the Senate. These people were not old-money Wasps, but middle-class men from different walks of life: frontiersmen who taught themselves Mandarin Chinese, like Montana's Mike Mansfield, or war veterans who wanted only to continue to serve their country, like Phil Hart of Michigan.

On this scale, Kennedy was something of a throwback. He was certainly patrician. He was from one of America's wealthiest families. But Kennedy money wasn't old Wasp money. Old Man Joe, whatever his faults, taught his nine kids to remember the penury from which the family had risen. And from the experience of being Catholic in early 20th-century America, they took the lesson that discrimination and exclusion had to be fought.

In 1958 and 1960, more men in the Mansfield-Hart mould were elected to the Senate. The trend culminated in Teddy's own class, of 1962. Now, suddenly, the Senate wasn't dominated by millionaires and racists. And now, the Senate could help remake America – and itself. It joined the side of progress and passed piles of legislation, starting of course with civil rights but hardly ending there, that changed the country.

No one was more central to this historic change than Kennedy. He left his imprint on more legislation than any senator in the history of the chamber. He forged the famous alliances with dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. I doubt that any senator passed more pieces of bipartisan legislation than Kennedy. He was just damn good at his job...


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