By Eugene Robinson
That the nation is so moved by the passing of Edward Moore Kennedy testifies to his skill, grace and determination at playing a role that must have been infinitely more difficult than it sounds: a prince fated never to be king.
Ted Kennedy was the youngest of nine children in a family whose ruthless patriarch was intent on building an American dynasty. The old man, business titan Joseph Kennedy, was a king. Ted’s older brother Jack, the handsome young president, was a king. The other two brothers, Joe and Robert, were slated for the throne but died too soon. Ted made a run for president, but with the air of someone who didn’t really believe he was meant to win. He was the baby brother, the eternal prince.
Princes often have lives that are difficult, even within a context of wealth and privilege. They have to find ways to keep from being eaten alive by ambition that can never be requited. Some become sage counselors in the affairs of state; some become wastrels who lose themselves in women and booze; some fade away and become hobbyists who go off and pilot sailboats or collect butterflies or something. It’s fair to say that at various points in his life, Ted Kennedy tried all of these identities.
The hardest task for an eternal prince is to construct an original identity of which he can be proud—an identity that allows him to live a life of purpose, meaning and impact. Ted Kennedy accomplished this feat by becoming the greatest senator of our age and serving as the liberal conscience of the nation.
Every once in a while, the conventional wisdom is basically right. The generally agreed-upon story line is that Kennedy found himself through the experience of defeat. The consensus view is that he ran for president in 1980 largely out of a sense of obligation, that he ran such a disorganized and almost desultory campaign that it almost looked like self-sabotage, and that when he lost the Democratic nomination to incumbent Jimmy Carter he became a free man, able for the first time to find his own voice and chart his own path.
I was in Madison Square Garden—a wide-eyed young reporter, getting his first taste of national politics—when Kennedy gave his electrifying concession speech at the 1980 Democratic convention. The famous final passage, which brought down the house, was as powerful and succinct a manifesto as any public figure in this country has ever delivered:
“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.”
Those are stirring words, and Kennedy spent the next three decades backing them up. In the powerful cadences of that sentence, he makes specific commitments. He promised to work—which he did, indefatigably, shoving and tugging legislation through the procedural molasses of the Senate. He promised not to abandon the cause—the liberal agenda of equal opportunity and equal justice. He promised to keep hope alive—and never, even in his final months, did he betray a hint of hopelessness. And he promised that the dream would live on—a vision of an America that lives up to its highest ideals, an America in which those who are least fortunate or most in need are not forgotten.
By then, Ted Kennedy had already had monumental impact on his country—his work in reforming the nation’s immigration laws in 1965 literally altered the face of the nation by changing a quota system that had made it easy for Europeans to come to this country while admitting only a trickle of immigrants from parts of the world where the people happened to be black or brown.
The cause of his life, however, became health care—changing the unacknowledged system of rationing under which we apportion care according to an individual’s ability to pay. There are those who believe that if Kennedy had not been ailing, President Obama’s attempt at health care reform might be further along. I doubt that, given the Republican Party’s strategy of intransigence and fear-mongering.
But we sorely miss Kennedy’s moral clarity. He believed our nation has the responsibility to ensure that every American has the right to affordable health care. Perhaps his life as an eternal prince taught him that happiness and salvation lie in sacrificing self-interest for the greater good.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group