The Lion in Repose

There is no “good” time to get really bad news about people you admire.

But when you’re a news geek like I am, you sometimes find yourself getting really, really bad news at 5:45 a.m., like I did this morning.

Last May, we all got the word that Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy (or Ted to his friends and even some of his foes) had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer that would probably take his life within a year or two.

This morning, at 5:45 a.m., the folks at the BBC informed me and the rest of the world that Sen. Kennedy had lost his fight with brain cancer. He was 77 and died surrounded by those who loved him most, his wife Vicky and their children.

He went out peacefully. I was happy to hear that. I’m sure that the more self-righteous among us who would rather be stuck in Chappaquiddick weren’t too happy, but I was.

While on it’s face focusing on that incident and that incident alone appears disrespectful, you can’t really talk about the legacy of Ted Kennedy without stipulating that some of the drama in his life was self-inflicted, starting with Chappaquiddick. Had he called the police when the car he and Mary Jo Kopechne were driving in went into the river, or if he had at least gotten Donte Stallworth’s vehicular homicide sentence and did a little time in jail, Sen. Kennedy probably would have been President Kennedy the Sequel.

(Or maybe not. What I’m learning about the more self-righteous among us is that with them you get no second chances. Just ask Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. If only these folks cared as much about people as they do about dogs…)

But I digress.

But while he was Bill Clinton before Bill Clinton was old enough to be Bill Clinton, Kennedy did more than a few things in his time in the Senate to offset at least some of the mistakes and bad choices that he made as a younger man.

He was one of the forces behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and also allowed himself to get hit by tomatoes in Boston because he supported busing as a means to desegregate the city’s schools.

He championed HIV/AIDS research and put together the Ryan White Care Act, which gave local HIV/AIDS organizations the money they needed to provide care and get the word out about prevention.

He pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, an expansion of the AmeriCorps volunteer program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, all things that provide help to the poor and disadvantaged, people he cared for because he wanted to, not because he had to.

He fought to make all immigrants welcome in this country, not just those from the European continent.

And, and this is a big one, he had to bury his two older brothers, John and Robert, after they were felled by assassin’s bullets. He then took care of their families, held the entire family together, and then buried a beloved nephew, John Jr., when he died in a plane crash.

I’d say that merits a peaceful passage all by itself.

When I wrote about Sen. Kennedy’s diagnosis last year, it was shortly after he endorsed Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. It was a decision that gave the president some serious street cred among progressive Democrats who were looking for someone to vote for.

All that the Senator wanted in return for his endorsement was a commitment by the Obama Administration to get legislation guaranteeing health care for all Americans passed. He had a shot of getting such legislation passed during the Nixon Administration, but because it fell short of universal, Kennedy said it wasn’t good enough.

Sen. Kennedy was honored for his time in politics and for what he had given the nation during the Democratic National Convention. I was sitting in one of the press tents drinking a diet Coke with some of the other reporters and I think that this was when it hit most of us that this was going to be one of the last times that we saw the Lion of the Senate among us.

Although I probably shouldn’t have felt this way being a reporter and all, I was hoping that Sen. Kennedy would be able to stay with us just long enough to see the nation swear-in its first African American president. (Having helped his brother John, the first Roman Catholic president, obtain the presidency, this would be a banner moment for him.) When I saw him standing out in the freezing weather with the rest of us, I was happy for him. I thought he was crazy. But I was happy for him.

Sen. Kennedy’s funeral will be held on Saturday in Boston and he will join his brothers at Arlington National Cemetery.

But he left one piece of work unfinished, and I’m hoping that Sen. Kennedy’s death will get it moving in the right direction.

As I said earlier in this post, Sen. Kennedy had only one request of President Obama when he gave him his endorsement: pass legislation that would provide health care for all Americans.

In case you haven’t noticed, that effort has been stuck in the mud of late.

Between Republicans who want to talk about “death panels” and the gun-toting “birthers” they unleash at town hall meetings, Blue Dog Democrats who want to want to see co-ops instead of a public health care option, and President Obama’s desire to negotiate with people that seem to be more interested in retaking power than they are with doing the people’s business, health care for all seems to be getting further and further away every minute.

Everyone in Congress is going to be sharing their memories of Sen. Kennedy with you on television, on the radio, in the newspapers, everywhere.

If you as an American are really serious about there being health care for all, it’s time to shame the Legislative and Executive branches into it. If you’re reading this post and have the phone number, email address, or snail mail address to your senator or congressman, send them the message that it’s time for them to grow a set, stop playing around, and get health care reform legislation passed NOW!

Otherwise, they’re just spouting platitudes.

I think that we can all agree that Senator Kennedy deserves better than that.

I leave you with the speech that Sen. Kennedy gave at the Democratic National Convention one year ago today.

Rest in peace, Senator.