Compassionate Liberalism

SENATOR TED KENNEDY, 1932-2009

Ted Kennedy was treasured by liberals, loved by many of his conservative colleagues, revered by African Americans and Latinos, respected by hard-bitten political bosses, admired by students of the legislative process, and cherished by those who constituted the finest cadre of staff members ever assembled on Capitol Hill.

The Kennedy paradox is that he managed to be esteemed by almost everyone without ever becoming all things to all people. He stood for large purposes, unequivocally and unapologetically, and never ducked tough choices. Yet he made it his business to get work done with anyone who would toil along with him. He was a friend, colleague, and human being before he was an ideologue or partisan, even though he was a joyful liberal and an implacable Democrat.

Ted Kennedy suffered profoundly, made large mistakes, and was, to say the least, imperfect. But the suffering and the failures fed a humane humility that led him to reach out to others who fell, to empathize with those burdened by pain, to understand human folly, and to appreciate the quest for redemption.

That made him a rarity in politics. Never pretending that he knew everything, he had a magnetic draw for talented people who stayed with him for years. He trusted them and gave them room to shine. Their guidance and his own intelligence and feverish work made him one of the greatest senators in history.

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).