When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died after a year-long battle with brain cancer on Aug. 25 at the age of 77, the Massachusetts Democrat had served in Congress longer than any of his three brothers had lived: nearly 47 years.
Senators and statesmen paid tribute to Kennedy, and I thought of the first time I saw the senator in action: on Capitol Hill at the 2006 confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. As Kennedy relentlessly grilled Alito over whether he had participated in a Princeton group that criticized the university's policy of admitting minorities, Kennedy's face grew red and Alito's wife shed tears.
The aggressive scene was reminiscent of Kennedy's much harsher 1987 attack on Robert Bork, one of President Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominees: "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught evolution."
The dubious assessment helped sink Bork's confirmation and crystallized the unabashedly liberal philosophy that drove Kennedy's four-decade Senate career.
After Sen. Robert Kennedy's death in 1968, many believed Ted Kennedy was destined for the presidency. But less than a year later, scandal at Chappaquiddick Island crippled those aspirations: Mysterious circumstances surrounded the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a woman riding in a car Kennedy said he accidentally drove off a bridge. The scandal stuck, and Kennedy failed in a 1980 bid against President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination.
With presidential prospects dashed, Kennedy's focus on the Senate grew singular, and the senator remained a legislative workhorse. During the course of his career, his leadership was pivotal on mountains of legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Freedom of Information Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and healthcare reforms that consumed his attention.
Despite his left-wing stances, Kennedy sometimes reached across the aisle: He joined Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in sponsoring the first major legislation to fund AIDS research and treatment in 1988. He supported President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education effort, and he co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to provide funding for programs that educate pregnant women about the positive potential for children born with Down syndrome. (Many doctors encourage women to abort such children, but the pro-abortion Kennedy learned about the value of such lives through a mentally disabled sister of his own.)
Republicans joined Democrats in expressing regard for Kennedy: Sen. John McCain called him "indispensable." Former Sen. Bob Dole called Kennedy "one of the powerhouses of all time." A framed letter hanging in Kennedy's Senate office from former Republican Sen. Trent Lott reads: "Thank you my friend for your many courtesies. If the world only knew."
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says that even for conservatives who only know their differences with Kennedy, one reality rings true: "Conservatives wish they had somebody that effective."