The Real Legacy of Ted Kennedy

His White House dreams dashed after Chappaquiddick, he pursued vision from Senate

By Robert A. George
|  Thursday, Aug 27, 2009  |  Updated 7:23 AM PDT
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Eunice Kennedy Shriver Life in Photos

Sen. Ted Kennedy's seminal moment came at Chappaquiddick, but his legacy was forged in the Senate.

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The life of Sen. Edward Kennedy offers many lessons: Pushing forward in the face of family tragedy. Staying true to one's values.  And, perhaps most poignantly, how one unique moment can forever change the arc of a life.

Kennedy's seminal moment occurred on a Massachusetts bridge 40 years ago this summer.  An awful accident compounded by shockingly bad judgment effectively ended any possibility that the last brother of America's premier political dynasty would ever become president of the United States. A young campaign worker named Mary Jo Kopechne when drove off the Dyke Bridge in Chappaquiddick, near Martha's Vineyard.  It was, however, Kennedy's actions after the crash that sealed his political fate:  He told aides immediately, but not the police. That became what political observers would call "the character issue."

The greatest speech Ted Kennedy ever gave came in 1980 as his one and only campaign for the presidency came to an end in a primary challenge at the Democratic National Convention: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die," said Kennedy from the podium.  He knew in his heart that although his dream of making it to the White House officially ended that night at the convention in New York City, it had most likely died eleven years before in a moment of moral failing.

Still, Ted Kennedy was blessed with something that none of his three brothers had -- a long life. With it, he became patriarch of a clan that included nephews and nieces left fatherless because of assassins' bullets and carried forward his brothers' legacy of New Deal liberalism.

In losing the 1980 primary, Kennedy became free to focus solely on pursuing his family's vision through legislation. While the Senate was something of a stepping stone for John and Bobby, the chamber was the bedrock for Ted. He worked as hard as any senator ever has, leaving his mark on a long list of groundbreaking legislation:

More than 300 bills that Kennedy wrote have been enacted into law, and he was known for his ability to work with Republicans and to find compromises among Senate members with disparate views. Kennedy played a major role in passing many pieces of legislation that have affected the lives of all Americans, including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the National Cancer Act of 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, the COBRA Act of 1985, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act in 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Mental Health Parity Act in 1996 and 2008, the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997, the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009.

He mastered the Senate's institutional intricacies, winning the respect and friendship of Republicans and Democrats alike. Kennedy was the last ideological stalwart that could also be considered a bipartisan force. In the last weekend, as it became clear the end was near, several Republicans noted how the health care debate might have been playing much differently were he in the room trying to complete his life's work.

For partisans, the actions one night at Chappaquiddick will forever be a stain on the legacy of Edward M. Kennedy -- and rightly so, because it ended the life of a young woman. But, those that God gifts with a lengthy life are given the opportunity each and every day to try and make a difference in the world around them.  Ted Kennedy did not squander that chance. 

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter

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