If you are a college graduate who needed student loans to get that degree – ever more precious in an economic downturn and a competitive work environment – you should be thanking Ted Kennedy today. If you’re a female who got to play sports in schools forced to fund women’s athletics with some semblance of equity to men’s, thank Kennedy for Title IX. If you’re a person who grew up in poverty, working your tail off at minimum-wage jobs and still had too much month at the end of the money, you can thank Kennedy for his push to raise – more than once – the minimum wage. If you or your child are disabled and you’re offered decent education and a chance at work without discrimination? Kennedy and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Kennedy, who served in the Senate for 46 years, died last night at the age of 77 from complications of a brain tumor. He was a life-long Catholic. While he was involved in just about every piece of major legislation that brought a better life to the working poor, the issues closest to his heart were equal rights, health care and education – both improving it in general and improving access to higher education for people of little means. I often think of critics of Kennedy’s – the college-educated pro-life advocates who focus solely on his stance on abortion and stem-cell research – and wonder: Do they realize that their college educations, the brains they trained in university classrooms and now use to mount arguments against killing the unborn, are, in part, gifts from the late Senator? Women, minorities and the poor especially should recognize that without Kennedy’s passion for improving access to higher education for all, many would not have made it into those classrooms.
I once had the privilege of spending two days with Fr. Charles Curran while researching and reporting a story on the controversial priest. Besides discovering that he was about the nicest person I had ever met and by far and away the most humble, I found out what he thought of his critics and supporters. He said one consequence of being a lightening rod for certain issues was that people thought they knew him. Those who liked what he said tended to put him on a pedestal, and those who disliked him tended to demonize him. The truth, he said, was somewhere in the middle: He tried always to do right, but sometimes he failed.
That’s what I think about Edward Kennedy – he was a man who tried to do right, but sometimes failed. He was neither all saint or all sinner but, like all of us, a mixture of both. Still, for all his personal-life struggles, the man never failed to show up for the common man when he took to the Senate floor. He never failed to speak up for the poor and disenfranchised. (And here, to preempt comments that he failed to show up for the unborn, I contend that Kennedy looked out and saw the millions CURRENTLY living in poverty and despair and tried to relieve that suffering immediately. His work positively affected millions of the living, even if he never publicly supported the fewer millions of unborn.) Kennedy was a man born into extreme privilege who considered it his life’s calling to make life better for others. Few of us, I believe, can say the same.