Given America's current partisan political divide, perhaps there is no more valuable lesson to learn from the robust life and career of Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy than this: To accomplish much, one must give much. Ted Kennedy gave time, passion, intelligence and understanding to the causes he championed, and when necessary, he gave ground to his opponents to bring about compromise and a better nation. Americans and the officials who represent them at all levels of government should learn a lot from his example.
Kennedy died Tuesday night at age 77, ending a lifetime of legislative victories and stunning personal tragedies. In the end, only brain cancer could fell this man whose strength and perseverance saw him through the assassinations of two older brothers, a broken back from a plane crash, the deaths of two other siblings in plane crashes, and two of his children's battles with cancer.
Some hardships were of his own making: expulsion from Harvard for cheating, and his inexcusable behavior in what came to be known as the Chappaquiddick affair. But despite the personal flaws he later acknowledged and the family tragedies he endured, Kennedy's greatest legacy is his 47-year career in the U.S. Senate battling for people who faced many hurdles in life — the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the disenfranchised. His leadership contributed to the passage of some of the most important legislation of our time: Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Mental Health Parity Act, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the No Child Left Behind Act.
A lifelong Democrat, Kennedy's habit of crossing the aisle to work with Republicans, his skill at bringing opposing factions to a compromise, and his willingness to sacrifice some of his own goals to win accord brought him respect from both parties in the Senate. "He would vote against his own position to preserve a compromise," his close Republican friend, Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, said Wednesday. It is important to recall that Kennedy used those skills not just in Washington, but around the world, most notably in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
Kennedy, one of the hardest working people in Washington and appropriately nicknamed the "Lion of the Senate," understood true political leadership. It is not demagoguery. It is not fanaticism. It is not putting up a finger to test the political winds before taking a stand. It is about charting a course based on principle, working honestly and openly to win others to your cause, and accepting compromises that ultimately make life better for your constituents.
That kind of bipartisan and rational leadership is in short supply these days in Congress and state legislatures, including in Florida. Ted Kennedy never achieved the presidency, but his legacy is a model of legislative leadership that politicians everywhere should try to emulate.