Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ted Kennedy: A lion remembered

In 2006, I was assigned to cover the Connecticut U.S. Senate midterm election race between Democrat Ned Lamont and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

In the course of that coverage, I would have the opportunity to meet Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. He was campaigning in support of Ned Lamont. While the Iraq war was then the No. 1 issue in America, Kennedy used that election as a platform to once again champion universal health care coverage.

Lamont was sweating as he stood outside the Clifford House senior center in Bridgeport, Conn. He was feeling the heat — not just from the sun on this unusually warm October afternoon, but he also was sweating his poll numbers. As Lamont waited for the guest of honor to help him kick-off this latest campaign event, he trailed incumbent Lieberman (running as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to Lamont earlier in 2006) in several polls of likely voters. One showed him down by as much as 10 percentage points in the November election. If Lamont was going to win this hotly-contested election for theSenate seat, he needed some help.

And help was on the way.

As soon as the tan Dodge Caravan pulled up to the entrance of the retirement home, Kennedy emerged from the vehicle and zeroed in on Lamont. Kennedy"s arrival was low-key — no fanfare, no entourage, just Ted. But his presence was commanding, and his endorsement and support was the kind of boost Lamont needed just weeks away from an election.

"We"re going to talk about health care!" were the first words out of Kennedy"s mouth as he shook hands with Lamont in front of the assembled media. "Ned"s got a plan for universal coverage, which is something that hasn"t been on the national agenda, and hasn"t been on the Senate"s agenda."

"It"s been on the back burner for an awful long time," Lamont added.

Kennedy had devoted much of his life crusading for universal health care coverage. For him, it was personal, and present as he walked gingerly towards the podium inside Clifford House.

While everyone stood, Kennedy took his seat until it was his turn to address the crowd, trying to ease the stress on his back.

The pain he felt after standing for long intervals stemmed from a 1964 plane crash enroute to the Massachusetts state Democratic Convention in Springfield. Senator Birch Bayh, D-Indiana — another passenger on the ill-fated flight — pulled Kennedy from the flaming wreckage of the airplane shortly after it crashed.

One of Kennedy"s aides, Ed Moss — and the pilot, Ed Zimny — died in the crash. It was less than a year after Ted's brother President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and just one more incident in a life filled with tragedy.

Ted Kennedy spent months recuperating from the ordeal and the crash left him with permanent back and neck problems. But it was also an event that marked a milestone in Kennedy"s crusade for health care coverage.

But that crusade almost ended before it even really began.

His involvement in the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island,Mass., almost brought Kennedy's career as a lawmaker to an end. Although it ultimately haunted him the rest of his life, Kennedy emerged from the scandal, and in 1970 introduced his first bill to provide national health care coverage. Three years later, his son, Edward M. Kennedy, lost a leg during a bout with cancer.

Some 33 years later, in 2006, he was still fighting for "the cause of his life" as he spoke to voters in Bridgeport who gathered to hear him speak.

"I came through the Hartford airport just a few hours ago," Kennedy earnestly explained. "And someone came up and grabbed my arm, and said, ‘Has anybody ever told you, you look like Ted Kennedy?' And then they said, ‘It must make you damn mad, doesn"t it!' "

The crowd erupted into laughter. It was Kennedy at his best, his charm and his humor put to use to help further his efforts, and as he began his pitch he seemed as comfortable as ever, in his element, doing what he did well.

"The test of the success of this nation is going to be our community of caring. Whether we are all going to care about each other. And that is what health care is all about."

After a seven-minute speech, supported by several charts that showed Kennedy"s plan for affordable health care coverage for everyone, Kennedy explained that a vote for Ned Lamont, and local Congressional candidate Diane Farrell, would be a vote for overhauling the health care system, which both candidates supported.

But like so much in his life, Kennedy would not see his efforts realized. Despite his endorsements and campaign stops, both Farrell and Lamont lost in the November general election that year. And despite gains for the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, real change would not come until 2008.

For Kennedy, it would not be soon enough. Shortly after his landmark endorsement of Presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, Kennedy fell ill with a seizure. Doctors treating him discovered a malignant tumor in his brain.

Kennedy would face his last, ultimate test during the first real opportunity to see the "cause of his life" fulfilled. The election of Obama and a new "supermajority" in the Senate is fertile ground for substantive change to America"s health care system.

Kennedy"s death comes at a critical moment when lawmakers are listening to voter concerns over health care reform in heated town hall debates all across America.

While Kennedy didn"t live long enough to see the "cause of his life" fulfilled, health care reform will undoubtedly be a lasting part of his legacy

The idealism Kennedy fervently applied to his crusade for health care was a family trait that he best described himself at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver — in what would be his last major public speech.

"We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavor, but when John Kennedy called of going to the moon, he didn't say it's too far to get there. We shouldn't even try," Ted Kennedy said.

"Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon. Yes, we are all Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again."

KANE FARABAUGHis a Midwest-based TV and radio correspondent with Voice of America ( A 1995 graduate of Ottawa Township High School, Farabaugh recently returned to Ottawa, where he now lives with his family. He's worked for various commercial TV stations as a reporter and anchor as well as the American Forces Network Europe based in Germany. The views expressed in this column are Farabaugh's and do not represent the views of Voice of America.

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