When Sen. Ted Kennedy eulogized Robert Kennedy in June 1968, he also offered what may be the most fitting coda for his own remarkable public life. Of RFK, he declared,
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.
Four decades later, the same must be said for Ted Kennedy. As Vice President Biden put it this morning, “He changed the circumstances of tens of millions of Americans. Literally.” From his role in building Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to the 2008 presidential elections, Kennedy’s legislative and political record is voluminous. Even in death, he may still influence the campaign for universal health care, which he called the “cause of my life.”
We’ll parse these achievements for days to come. For now, however, we’d do well to go back and hear his words. Kennedy was a powerful communicator and offered some of history’s most lasting articulations of the liberal ideal and its urgent message for public policy. Perhaps most famous is his concession speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention (written by Bob Shrum). As the storm clouds of the Reagan revolution gathered—preparing to turn back two decades of hard-fought progress toward a just society—Kennedy vowed no surrender.
The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.
The demand of our people in 1980 is not for smaller government or bigger government but for better government. Some say that government is always bad and that spending for basic social programs is the root of our economic evils. But we reply: The present inflation and recession cost our economy 200 billion dollars a year. We reply: Inflation and unemployment are the biggest spenders of all.
The task of leadership in 1980 is not to parade scapegoats or to seek refuge in reaction, but to match our power to the possibilities of progress.
As we face yet another deep recession, at yet another crucial turning point in American political life, Kennedy’s words that night are worth reading again.