The overnight news that the Democratic Party's long-serving Senator, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, has passed away, marked the end of an era in American politics. That's a fine cliché, but there is no doubt that an enormous body of legislative accomplishment—the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 Immigration bill, the SCHIP program, the Americans with Disabilities Act, even George W. Bush's contentious No Child Left Behind legislation—was passed on the strength of Kennedy's committment to liberalism. (As a friend reminds me, it's also worth noting his 1985 arrest, for protesting apartheid).
And it's all the more impressive that the roaring liberal so often worked with and was highly regarded by decades of Republican lawmakers and politicians. It's a mark of humility, and real committment to principle, rather than political posturing.
My first live encounter with candidate Barack Obama came at the moment when the old guard and the fresh face began their brief but strong alliance. A motley crowd had gathered to hear Obama speak in Washington, DC—but it was clear that the thousands came not merely to hear the stump speech that was by now old news to politicos, but to see Ted Kennedy, and his niece Caroline, and his son Patrick, all three public servants together and passing the torch to the young, slim, good-looking man who promised to change America's self-regard.
The real analogy between Obama and the Kennedys may be strained; unlike, for example, the vice president, Joe Biden, or Obama's campaign opponent, Sen. John McCain, President Obama had not known Ted Kennedy for long. Obama came from nowhere (certainly not Hyannis), and enjoyed only the briefest of tenures in the United States Senate—leaving after only three years. Kennedy has been ill and away from Washington for nearly every day of Obama's presidency. Far more ink has been spilled on Obama's Abraham Lincoln fetish.
Yet the president has continuously invoked and absorbed the Kennedy family legacy, from the educational initiatives under JFK that brought Barack Obama Sr. to the United States, to the rumors of Obama's preference for Caroline to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, to the handwritten letter Obama carried from Ted Kennedy to the Pope, down to the gift of his family dog. Why?
Listen to the speech Kennedy delivered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, one year to the day before his death, for the broad liberal message, the generous faith in Obama, and the crowd's wild reaction to both. Just as Teddy seemed perpetually willing to anoint Obama's story as the continuation of his remarkable family tradition, there is a way in which America wanted to see a link, too.
And, in the beginning, at the February 2008 event in Washington, speaking about JFK and his father's humble origins for the first time in the campaign, Obama seemed to choke up as he realized the enormity of the myth that had just been signed away.
Obama spoke for himself on Ted Kennedy's passing from Martha's Vineyard Wednesday morning:
I wanted to say a few words this morning about the passing of an extraordinary leader, Senator Edward Kennedy.
Over the past several years, I've had the honor to call Teddy a colleague, a counselor, and a friend. And even though we have known this day was coming for some time now, we awaited it with no small amount of dread.
Since Teddy's diagnosis last year, we've seen the courage with which he battled his illness. And while these months have no doubt been difficult for him, they've also let him hear from people in every corner of our nation and from around the world just how much he meant to all of us. His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us: the blessing of time to say thank you — and goodbye.
The outpouring of love, gratitude, and fond memories to which we've all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives. His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives — in seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education's promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just — including myself.
The Kennedy name is synonymous with the Democratic Party. And at times, Ted was the target of partisan campaign attacks. But in the United States Senate, I can think of no one who engendered greater respect or affection from members of both sides of the aisle. His seriousness of purpose was perpetually matched by humility, warmth, and good cheer. He could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines.
And that's one reason he became not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy.
His extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. And the extraordinary good that he did lives on. For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was the defender of a dream.
I spoke earlier this morning to Senator Kennedy's beloved wife, Vicki, who was to the end such a wonderful source of encouragement and strength. Our thoughts and prayers are with her, his children Kara, Edward, and Patrick; his stepchildren Curran and Caroline; the entire Kennedy family; decades' worth of his staff; the people of Massachusetts; and all Americans who, like us, loved Ted Kennedy.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.