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Ted Kennedy: The "Lion of the Senate"

August 28, 2009
by Ron Manderscheid, PhD, Editorial Board Member
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Now is the time for us to do something about his wonderful vision.

We must not let the death of Senator Ted Kennedy pass without pausing to celebrate his life and his unparalleled legacy. The "Lion of the Senate" served in that role for almost 47 years—longer than a generation and far longer than virtually all of his colleagues. Throughout, he never deviated from his laser-like focus on improving our human condition and securing our basic human rights.

From the tumultuous days of the unprecedented civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, to the battles with conservatives over support for disabled persons and education of the poor in the 1980s, to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in the 1990s, to his current effort to establish health care as a basic human right, Ted Kennedy was always front and center. His voice and values were crystal clear to us all: Blacks should have the same rights as whites; persons with disabilities should have full access to their communities; poor children should be educated equally; health insurance coverage should be extended to the needy. No provisos; no ifs, ands, or buts; just straight talk.

The Senator always included mental health and substance use care. He played a major role in the creation of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); he fostered, sustained, and passed parity legislation; he created the first draft of the HELP Health Reform Bill—the draft legislation currently pending before the full Senate from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee he chaired. We could always count him as a strong friend, supporter, and sometimes, even taskmaster, no matter the nature of the political climate or the party of the White House incumbent.

Over his long Senate career, Senator Kennedy introduced more than 2,500 Bills, and he achieved passage of more than 300 of these. Virtually all Americans and all areas of American life have benefited from his labors.

Ted Kennedy had his own demons. From a young age, he had difficulty with alcohol. This addiction preceded many other problems for his family and for him. Yet, he learned from these misfortunes and grew in stature as a result. It is very likely that his older sister’s mild retardation and poor quality health care, and his own personal difficulties played major roles in his unwavering support for the mental health and substance use care fields.

Think for a moment about his personal life and the multiple tragedies he suffered. We all watched as he emerged as the patriarch of the Kennedy family. After the deaths of his two brothers, he became the surrogate father to John Kennedy Junior and to Caroline, and to Bobby’s children. He was a godfather at baptisms and an important father figure at graduations and weddings. He was present when John Junior’s body was recovered by the Navy after the tragic plane crash. Each time another family member died, he delivered an eloquent eulogy. We simply must ask ourselves: Would we have done as well?

The "Lion of the Senate" also had a wonderful sense of humor. Slightly more than a year ago, he participated in a mental health awards dinner to honor Senator Peter Domenici. He recounted a story in which someone approached him on the street and said, “You look a great deal like Ted Kennedy.” He said, “I agree with you. I really do.” Gales of laughter followed, led by the Senator.

Nothing less than a sure and true way for us to honor the legacy and memory of Senator Ted Kennedy will suffice. You and I already know what that way is. For more than a quarter century, the Senator has been advocating for health insurance coverage for all Americans. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, he even called health care a human right—equivalent to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now is the time for us to do something about his wonderful vision. We need to pass national health reform and name the legislation in his honor.

I can see his broad smile, and I can hear his booming voice saying, “The cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s fulfill Ted Kennedy’s dream of national health reform this year!