When the history of the United States Senate is taught 100 years from now, the syllabus will be organized around six names: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Lafollette, Taft and Edward M. Kennedy. Ted Kennedy was arguably the most effective U.S. senator of the last century. His name graces nearly 1,000 laws, 300 of which he wrote himself, including some of the most far-reaching and lasting legislation of the postwar period: the Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, immigration reform, children’s health care, the Family and Medical Leave Act.
He was the third-longest serving U.S. senator, yet his success cannot be attributed simply to his 47-year tenure. Unlike his brothers, Kennedy possessed the character of a legislator: a tenacious will, a keen, tactical mind and patience to match his passion. His death on Aug. 25 silenced an unrelenting advocate for the nation’s poor and marginalized, a lifelong champion for universal health care and a vehement opponent of war as an instrument of foreign policy.
As the nation’s gaze was again directed to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Kennedys had assembled to bury the last of four brothers, we were reminded that Ted Kennedy’s death also severed our most visible remaining link to another era: a time when Catholics had finally found their way in national politics, on a path that had led to the White House. As the senator’s hearse paused at the steps of the U.S. Senate in a final tribute, we had a moment to reflect on how dramatically Washington has changed since it first welcomed the president’s youngest brother in 1962. Some of that change has been for the better, including a Senate that looks more like America than it did in Ted Kennedy’s earliest days.
Yet that increasing diversity has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in gentility, one of the hallmarks of true statesmanship. Kennedy’s legislative career began in a capitol in which partisans vigorously debated, but civility nearly always prevailed. This ethos shaped both his public and private lives. Kennedy’s capacity for friendship was legendary; he numbered his friends in the thousands. They came from both sides of the Senate aisle, from America’s boardrooms as well as its union halls, from the mastheads of both The New Republic and The National Review. His death was mourned by those both at the center and at the margins of national life. His talent for building effective coalitions is already greatly missed.
Like his five illustrious predecessors in the U.S. Senate, indeed like all of us, Kennedy’s life, in public as well as in private, was a mix of light and shadow. Yet unlike most of us, his successes and failures were on constant public display. His heroic defense of civil rights, for instance, even in the face of raging mobs during Boston’s school busing crisis, was accompanied by his tragic support for abortion virtually on demand. His courage during the depths of his harrowing, public mourning for his brothers was followed by moral and political disaster at Chappaquiddick and, later, in Palm Beach. It was obvious that he knew something of sin and suffering. In the end it seemed he had also learned something about redemption. His second marriage, in 1992, to a spirited Louisianan, Victoria Reggie, appeared to rescue him from the worst in himself and the ghosts of his past. It also brought new luster to his virtues.
One of the last survivors of America’s most famous Catholic family, he rarely spoke openly about his faith. At Kennedy’s graveside, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick read from the senator’s recent letter to Pope Benedict XVI: “I know that I have been an imperfect human being,” Kennedy wrote, “but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path.”
Ted Kennedy had a complicated relationship with his church. Her faith was his own, he said, sustaining him through more tragedy than anyone should bear in a lifetime. The Sermon on the Mount and the church’s social teaching inspired his public life. Until his death, however, he remained at odds with some of those very same teachings. “I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness,” Kennedy wrote, “and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings.”
In this final sentiment, perhaps, Ted Kennedy was not unusual, but simply one among many contemporary American Catholics who struggle to navigate the tension between their faith beliefs and their civic ideals and obligations. America is a moral complex in which truth and freedom appear in perpetual tension. This is truer today than ever before. Perhaps no one knew that better than Ted Kennedy, whose life was as complicated, as tragic and ultimately as inspiring as the place and the times in which he lived.