While listening to the tributes to Ted Kennedy and his family, I came to realize that much of my life politically has been defined, shaped and filtered through the prism of the Kennedy brothers. I began my own career of public service as a teacher the year that JFK was elected president; I became an educational administrator the year RFK was assassinated; and for the past 40 years I have had my own beliefs in the virtues of liberalism advocated in the Senate by one of the few men with the courage to honor the liberal tradition in America.For 49 years (JFK-1960 to Teddy-2009) compassion for the poor, extending civil rights, minimum wage increases, health care for all, and educational equity, these and other banners were carried, waved and championed by the three brothers Kennedy. Whatever their limitations may have been, personal or public, they were – in fact – among the few political leaders who had the courage to offer hope to the disenfranchised and dispossessed. After the death of Paul Wellstone in 2002, Ted Kennedy was the only powerful liberal voice in the Senate. Now with Teddy gone, one has to wonder from where the passionate support for equity and true democracy will come.I met Ted Kennedy twice in my life – 45 years apart – and was deeply impressed both times. The first time was when he came to California in 1962 to help campaign for Pat Brown in his race against Richard Nixon for governor. My sister worked in Brown’s campaign and arranged for me to be Teddy’s chauffeur for a day. I picked up the Senator and an advisor, Fred Dutton, at LAX and drove them to Fairfax and Melrose for a speech to a largely middle-class Jewish audience, then to the L.A. Times for an editorial interview, then to a South Central union meeting hall, and finally to a wealthy home in Bel Air for a dinner party. It was just a “day in the life of a senator.” I was amazed at the breadth of knowledge and energy required of him for just this one day. He told wonderful stories at each venue and made everyone feel he cared about their specific issues – and, in most cases, he did.The second meeting was a reception in Brentwood a couple of years ago, and I was deeply impressed with his specific knowledge of the educational needs of the country. Of course, I could not help but be touched by his actually asking me what I thought about this and that. Going back to JFK going door to door, Bobby walking with Cesar Chavez, and Teddy’s ability to listen and to ask and not just pontificate, all three Kennedys connected with people of all different backgrounds and these connections gave us all hope. An era has come to an end; we can only wonder how we as a nation will fare now that the last brother has died.The right wing has done an effective job in trashing the word liberal, but Ted Kennedy continually and consistently spoke out for what the word and its tradition represents. There is a fundamental dichotomy in American politics between individual freedoms and community well-being. We have seen, over and over, that unregulated individualism leads to massive disparities in wealth, opportunity and equity. Our current economic meltdown is but the latest. It will not do to try to discredit efforts to achieve community well-being by labeling such efforts as “socialistic.” For goodness sakes, the government subsidizes corporations, the postal service, medicine, public roads, and on and on. There needs to be a balance between individualism and collective security.It is my fervent hope that President Obama will find the courage deep within himself to seize the days allotted to him and lead with the passions of JFK, RFK, and EMK at their very best. Those of us who believe liberalism stands for what is the true worth of our nation can only hope, with Teddy now gone, that BHO will swing for the fences.
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