Without a past we are lost. Without a future we are doomed.
I found myself close to tears most of this morning. It surprises me. I have never been particularly taken by "the Kennedy mystique." I campaigned for Gene McCarthy in '68. Things got a bit heated during the primaries, and some of us didn't care for RFK that much. Still, I remember being unable to sleep on the horrible night of the California primary.
I felt some of the same things this morning.
I think of my personal recollections of Ted Kennedy. I remember seeing him at an airport once. It was around the time of the Bork fight, and I shook his hand to congratulate him on the good work he was doing. He looked so energetic, so confident.
I remember going to an Obama rally in New Jersey just before Super Tuesday. My daughter, who had never expressed much interest in politics before but was drawn to Obama, was the one who got me to go along. I ran into some people I had known from Northern New Jersey from the McGovern campaign. Ted Kennedy was there. He looked a lot smaller and more frail compared to the way he looked when I saw him at the airport twenty years earlier. But he still seemed to have the same confidence and energy. His speech was beautiful. So was Obama's. So was Cory Booker's. The past, the present, the future.
All my life, I've loved the study of history, almost to the point of obsession. I think about it a lot, American history in particular. There's a lot not to like about American history. I'm not particularly a fan of two guys who are Democratic Party icons, Jackson and Jefferson. I think they were hypocrites. Somehow, though, those hypocrites managed to let some very subversive words sneak into the fabric of our country:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal ..."
Much as the forces of reaction have tried to wipe them out over the years, those words are still there. They have inspired greatness throughout our country's history. Greatness on the part of figures in the establishment, like Lincoln and FDR. Greatness on the part of figures outside of the establishment like Frederick Douglass, Ella Baker, and Harvey Milk. Greatness on the part of a few outsiders who worked their way into the establishment, like Louis Brandeis and Thurgood Marshall. It's what I think of as liberal patriotism.
It's been hard for liberals to be patriotic during my lifetime. We've gone through the Cold War, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassinations, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Clinton impeachment, the election of 2000, the Bush-Cheney reign. Torture as national policy - and Cheney brags about it.
Is there any room for liberal patriotism? That's why I got teary this morning. Because, throughout all of those years there have been the Kennedys. Perhaps, at times, they have been hypocrites, as other Democratic Party icons have been. Robert Kennedy worked for Joe McCarthy. John Kennedy did not say no to the Bay of Pigs.
But over the years they have also been the voices of liberal patriotism. They have been a bridge between what has been great in our past and what can be great in our future. JFK challenged us, literally, to reach for the moon, and we saw Neil Armstrong take his small step. RFK told us that when dreaming of things that never were, we should say "Why not?", and we saw the civil rights revolution become the law of the land. Teddy Kennedy told us, several times, that the dream would live on, and we saw America again became a beacon of hope for millions of immigrants.
Teddy Kennedy also told us that healthcare for all Americans is an unalienable right. How fitting, how striking it is that his life was brought to an end at this moment in our history. I'm starting to tear up again.
I have sensed some darkness in the liberal soul over the past few weeks. There has been defeatism. Liberals seem to be getting "wee-weed up" (I just love that phrase). There is a lot a cynicism; we expect Obama to be a sell-out, a disappointment. Lord knows we have plenty of reasons to be cynical. We hear that passing healthcare reform is just impossible. And the more we hear that, the broader the wolfish grin on the faces of the forces of reaction becomes.
Is it really that hard? Is it such a big thing to say that every American has a fundamental right to a guarantee of decent healthcare? I will not accept for an instant the suggestion that we cannot afford it. Even through economic crisis we are still the wealthiest country in the world, indeed, in the history of the world. I do not begrudge great wealth to people who have worked hard to earn it. But those who have truly earned their wealth are those who understand that they must bear great responsibility to those less fortunate. I think Teddy Kennedy understood that, perhaps better than anyone.
The simple answer lies in that subversive phrase woven into the fabric of our country, for all of us are truly created equal. No one of us has a greater right to lead a healthy life than any other.
I salute Senator Kennedy for all of his service to our country. Let us honor his life by reclaiming liberal patriotism.
I cannot wait for the day when President Obama signs the Edward M. Kennedy Healthcare Reform Act of 2009 into law.