The nation last week lost a fierce advocate for human rights, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who fought for “the left-out and the left-behind.” There is a difference between a career politician and a public servant, and we’ve been represented overwhelmingly by the former.
When Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal lion of the U.S. Senate, left his beloved Boston for the last time Saturday and made his way to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., a group of senators and staffers stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and sang “America the Beautiful” as his funeral procession paused.
Among those singing on the steps was a man who, as a child, delivered newspapers to senators at the Capitol. Kennedy befriended that boy more than 20 years ago and told him for every “A” he received on his report card, he would give him $1. The young man went on to graduate from Cornell University, after being recommended to the college by the senator.
Stories like this were not uncommon. Kennedy, it seems, took a personal interest in people — and he tried to help those less fortunate through not only his legislative prowess but his personal touch. Such stories were recounted repeatedly during the weekend coverage of his memorial service and funeral.
Though he was born into a family of wealth and privilege, Kennedy fought for those who were not. He refused to vote for politically popular legislation if it meant it would hurt single mothers working two jobs to raise their children, or if it failed to uphold the tenets of civil rights.
He was adept at crafting legislation; he authored roughly 300 bills and voted on more than 2,500 in nearly five decades in the Senate. No issue, it seems, was more dear to him than health care reform, the topic that has had the attention of the nation in recent months.
“It’s rare in a legislator to find someone who is both adept at forging compromise and adept at pushing the Senate to take a moral stand, even when it’s an unpopular one,” said Jeff Blattner, former chief counsel on Kennedy’s Judiciary Committee staff. “And it’s that combination of qualities that really made him truly unique.”
Whether you agree with his politics or not, Kennedy was of that generation of legislators who could reach across the aisle and work with those with varying ideologies and priorities to forge compromise. This region’s former congressional representative Amo Houghton would be another such example, but from the Republican side.
With Kennedy’s passing, and the aging of his generation, this brand of public service has given way to political sparring of the most unproductive — and unappealing — kind.
We can’t help but mourn the passing of Kennedy and his ability to not only draft legislation with a deft touch, but spearhead the across-the-aisle conversations that led to progress through compromise.
And we wonder if there is a way to remind elected officials who are more inclined toward self-serving politics — like handing out big checks with their names on them, or staging coups, or calling press conferences to slam those from another party or another part of the state — that they are elected to do the people’s business.
Kennedy made politics his career, but was much more than a career politician. He reminded us all that there is a difference between the “career politician,” who votes in his or her own best interest, and the “public servant,” who fights for those who don’t have the power to fight for themselves.
We’d like to remind voters that this election season will be a good time to demand public servants rather than career politicians.