August 26, 2009 9:47 AM
When I think of Ted Kennedy I think of two things: his belief that government could play a positive role in shaping a better country and his ability to work with people who adamantly disagreed with him.
Ted Kennedy counted Jerry Falwell and Orin Hatch and George W. Bush as friends, even as they attacked his most strongly held beliefs. Like Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson, Kennedy could separate disagreements over public policy from the person he disagreed with. It was possible in Kennedy's world to go after a colleague on the floor of the Senate and then share a drink later in the evening. Building trust and strong personal relationships with his adversaries is the way that Kennedy was able to work out compromises that moved issues forward.
And compromise was important to Kennedy because he believed that government action could improve the lives of Americans. Endless stalemate and inaction is the strategy of those who think that government can do only harm. Kennedy and his brothers believed that government was nothing more or less than the means by which we solved our collective problems. Government can do a lot of good, and the Kennedys didn't shrink from making that point.
Now the last of the Kennedy brothers is gone, but their legacy - the idea that politics is a noble, exciting and even fun calling and the idea that our government has a positive role to play in our lives - lives on.
Like millions of Americans my age, I remember that horrible week in early summer of 1968 and the day they buried Bobby Kennedy. School had just let out for the summer, it was a hot day and I sat in my parent's basement and watched the funeral on television. Ted Kennedy's eulogy in St. Patrick's Cathedral might be repeated for him today. As a school kid I memorized it, and I won't get it exactly right forty years later, but it went something like this:
"My brother need not be idealized in death larger then he was in life. He should be remembered simply as a good man who saw pain 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 remember the words that he repeated in every village and hamlet across America. 'Some men see things as they are and ask why. But imagine things that never were and ask why not?'"