The phone rang at 6:03 a.m. My editors at the Tablet wanted to know if I could write something quickly about the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy who died this morning. The request is not that different from being asked to give a synopsis of World War II, or the Pauline Epistles, in a couple of hours and in 800 words. The phone call took longer than usual because I had to keep composing myself. For the first thing about Sen. Kennedy’s death is that it is personal if you are a politically engaged Catholic. His family touched ours in ways few other families do, even neighbors. How many Catholic families have a picture of Jack Kennedy on the wall next to the crucifix? And, the last one standing was Teddy. He carried on the legacy of his brothers. He was the champion, year in and year out, of so many causes at the heart of Catholic social teaching. The first thing to do in the face of this loss is to cry.
Ted Kennedy stood out from his peers in almost every way: his family was more illustrious, his rhetoric was more exciting, his legislative career more accomplished. He voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act which changed the lives of black Americans for the better. He voted for Medicare and Medicaid which changed the lives of the poor and the elderly for the better. He voted – he actually wrote – Title IX, which changed the lives of female athletes for the better. He voted for SCHIPS which changed the lives of poor children for the better. The world is a better place because of Ted Kennedy’s 47 years in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy was wrong on abortion. He flipped from being pro-life to pro-choice in the 1970s, buying into a set of arguments that were weak then and seem weaker today. He was not alone. Ed Muskie, Al Gore, Jr., Dennis Kucinich, all were pro-lifers who flipped, largely in the face of political pressure from women’s groups who saw abortion as a part of the women’s liberation movement. Curiously, Gov. Ella Grasso – the first female elected Governor of a state in her own right - was one of the few Northeastern liberal Democrats who remained true to her pro-life convictions.
The final gift of Ted Kennedy to the nation was to pass the torch of liberalism to Barack Obama, whom he endorsed during the primaries at a critical time. It was breathtaking to see this Irish Catholic embrace a black man as his political heir. Those of us who remember the horrible racism in Boston during the struggle over busing could scarcely believe our eyes.
I shall leave it to others to discuss Kennedy’s personal struggles. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. For all he did to improve the lives of so many Americans, it is enough to offer the prayer, Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.