During my visit to Arlington National Cemetery last September I visited the graves of the Kennedy brothers. I don't weep all that easily, so I was caught by surprise when tears welled up and I had to dab at my eyes at all three sites, but none more so than at Teddy's grave. I had watched him laid to rest here on TV just weeks before. The flag still flew at half-mast.
Nearby his brothers had their memorials -- the eternal flame for Jack, and the beautiful I. M. Pei memorial for Bobby. Teddy's fresh grave was only marked by this plain white cross and the simple marker. With the passage of the health care reform bill tonight, he finally received a fitting memorial.
I was thinking then of how much he would be missed, especially his sane, compassionate voice during the emerging healthcare debate. Just days before, President Obama had quoted from a letter Teddy wrote him back in May. Some passages are worth recalling:
When I thought of all the years, all the battles, and all the memories of my long public life, I felt confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the president who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society. For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life. And in the past year, the prospect of victory sustained me – and the work of achieving it summoned my energy and determination . . .Tonight we watched more hours of C-SPAN at one sitting than we ever have in our lives. Despite all the flaws and compromises and imperfections in the bill, I was proud of what the Democrats, Speaker Pelosi and the President had accomplished. Politics is the art of the possible. If passing health care reform were easy in America, we would have had it years ago.
But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.
And so because of your vision and resolve, I came to believe that soon, very soon, affordable health coverage will be available to all, in an America where the state of a family's health will never again depend on the amount of a family's wealth. And while I will not see the victory, I was able to look forward and know that we will – yes, we will – fulfill the promise of health care in America as a right and not a privilege . . .
What passed for debate on the Republican side was appalling. It wasn't only that not a single Republican voted for the bill in either house, but that during the debate, I didn't hear any Republicans say they were also concerned about the millions of un- and under-insured, but there was a better way, and here's what it was. No, they were all about fear, partisanship and obstructionism. They didn't care about proposing practical alternatives. As a group, they just didn't care, period, and if there were some individuals who did they kept quiet about it.
Would Teddy have shamed a few of them into behaving differently if he had been there? Perhaps. But probably not. After all, the Republican Party hardly embraced Social Security or Medicare either. Why should we expect them to help take care of business now -- "the great unfinished business of our society"? We just had to do it without them.
UPDATE: Thanks to Anonymous in the Comments for the "I promised Teddy" links (click to see an extraordinarily moving picture of Barack Obama with the ailing Teddy). The reference is to the last lines of the Boston Globe's obituary for Teddy Kennedy.
Despite his illness, Senator Kennedy made a forceful appearance at the Democratic convention in Denver, exhorting his party to victory and declaring that the fight for universal health insurance had been “the cause of my life.’’And tomorrow when the first of the health care reform bills is signed into law, he will have kept the promise. It's far from perfect, but we'll be able to improve it.
He pursued that cause vigorously, and even as his health declined, he spent days reaching out to colleagues to win support for a sweeping overhaul; when members of Obama’s administration questioned the president’s decision to spend so much political capital on the seemingly intractable health care issue, Obama reportedly replied, “I promised Teddy.’’