August 27, 2009

A Canadian perspective on the death of Ted Kennedy

Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009

"Ordinary people reacted to his death as if they had lost a personal friend."

August 27, 2009

News of the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, the only one of the fabled Kennedy brothers to reach old age, flashed around the world Tuesday. Obituaries and analyses followed, pushing other elections and other politicians off the front pages and TV screens. Ordinary people reacted to his death as if they had lost a personal friend.

In the U.S., many felt that a great champion of public health care and education, civil rights, workers' rights and a woman's right to choose had passed from the political scene, with no obvious replacement in view.

His impact on foreign affairs was substantial, his voice heard around the world. He worked hard for peace in Northern Ireland and against apartheid in South Africa. In 2002, he voted against the Iraq war. He told CNN's Larry King that his vote not to go to Iraq was "the best vote I've made in my 44 years in the United States Senate."

At the start of Kennedy's political life, all this would have seemed very unlikely. Charges of nepotism were levelled when he first ran for a Senate seat at age 28.

Political opponents vainly protested that he was riding on the coattails of his older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Their deaths at the hands of assassins - John in 1963 and Robert in 1968 - put their younger brother under relentless pressure to take up the family standard and run for the presidency.

The 1969 drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide of Robert Kennedy, made presidential ambitions moot. With Ted Kennedy at the wheel, the couple drove off a bridge into eight feet of water. Kennedy did not report the accident to authorities for nearly 10 hours. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

Kennedy nonetheless mounted a perfunctory campaign in 1980, challenging the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, to the Democratic nomination, and ultimately withdrawing.

In the decades that followed, Kennedy's influence extended far beyond the Senate. He was, in the words of New Yorker magazine writer Peter J. Boyer, "a kind of anti-president in the Senate ... often standing alone in his battles for the liberal cause."

Kennedy backed President Barack Obama at a pivotal point in Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination, believing the younger man represented the possibility of reconciliation in a country still crippled by racism.

He died before the health-care legislation he fought so long for became a reality. It would have been his final gift to the nation he loved.

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