Burke’s Law XI: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

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By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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The passing of Senator Edward Moore Kennedy brings to an end an era of politics that we may never see again. His was an era of bipartisan friendships, collaboration with opposing political ideologues and true joy in legislating. Say what you will about his personal failings: this was a man who cared very deeply about this country and the tireless pursuit to help those less fortunate than his storied family.

Sen. Kennedy spent nearly 47 years in the U.S. Senate. His first 10 years were filled with tragedy — two brothers murdered by assassins — and his own personal catastrophe: the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, something compounded by the senator’s unforgivable and disastrous 10-hour silence. Kennedy went on to spend the next 10 years trying to find his place in the Senate and within his family. As the last remaining and youngest son of Joe Kennedy, Sr., he became the family’s de facto patriarch, a mantle that didn’t seem to sit comfortably on his shoulders.

He tried, and spectacularly failed, to become the second president Kennedy, running against the sitting Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. But losing the party nomination may have been the best thing that could have happened to him, as it was the turning point in an otherwise less-than-stellar Senate career. Realizing he could never become President — not with his personal problems, including love of the bottle, love of the ladies, the Kopechne death and, in 1982, a highly publicized divorce from his first wife, Joan — he was finally free to become one of the great senators of his time. Without the pressure of constant expectations, Kennedy was free to pursue the causes that really mattered to him.

That is when he truly became the lion of the Senate. Not because he slightly resembled a lion, what with that huge mane of Kennedy hair and free-floating jowls, but because he was as loud as a liberal lion. He became the leading voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. He was the champion of causes that no one else seemed to care about. He put all his passion, drive and sense of what is right into passing legislation that would change the way Americans live forever. He worked tirelessly to pass immigration reform, to increase the minimum wage, to enact the Medicare prescription drug program (heavens! government healthcare! socialism!), to lower the voting age to 18, to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act and the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, which allows employees to keep health insurance for a time after losing their job.

By not becoming President, Kennedy was free to pursue causes that had a larger impact on how America lives. We as Americans should feel lucky that his presidential failure made the rest of America able to live better more secure lives. The sad note is, of course, that he didn’t live to see healthcare reform get passed. As President Obama said in his eulogy, universal healthcare was the thread that ran through almost all of his legislation.

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His son, Edward Kennedy, Jr., eulogized his father’s belief in perseverance and hard work. He related a story about how, while preparing for races one summer, they were always the last sailboat on the water, still training and working long after the other boats returned to the shore. When he asked why they were always the last boat out, his father said, “Teddy, you see, most of the other sailors that we race against are smarter and more talented than we are. But the reason but the reason why we’re going to win is that we will work harder than them, and we will be better prepared.” Those words struck a chord in me, as most of us are not the smartest or most talented. There is nothing we can’t accomplish with enough hard work and more hard work. The end result is always so much more rewarding.

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Through his great love of life and through his huge heart he forged friendships with the most unlikely politicians, such as the uber-conservative Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. His friendships were never about politics, but about the person — that’s why Kennedy passed over 1,000 bills, 300 of which he wrote, in the Republican and Democratic-controlled Congresses. He never cared who ultimately took credit as long as business got done. This type of friendly personal relationships with political adversaries may have come to an end with Kennedy’s passing. Long gone now are the days when politicians’ kids went to school together, when weekends were spent with dinners, parties and enjoying each other’s company, when politics were left on the Hill until Monday.

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Kennedy’s legacy will not only be the remarkable legislation he created, but the power of redemption. We are all flawed. We all make choices we later regret. But we know we can learn and grow, and even as we falter, we can stand up straight and keep going. We can take our mistakes and learn to do better — to be better, kinder, more understanding. Each of us, even in our darkest moments, can realize we have been given an opportunity to make a conscious decision to turn our lives around, to persevere, to never give up. That’s the message I will take away from the last lion of the Senate. May he finally rest in peace.

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Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.

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