Milestones and missteps

For once, the extravagant elegies for a departed public figure are appropriate. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, in President Obama's words, was "the greatest United States senator of our time," at least for those who shared his passion for an activist federal government attuned to the needs of the poor and the marginalized.

Speculation about whether Kennedy might have pursued his passion for equality from the White House once occupied by his brother is inevitable, as is meditation on the multiple mis- fortunes of the Kennedy clan. Neither reaction to Kennedy's death should obscure his achievement as a master legislator who combined principle and pragmatism in causes greater than his own political preservation.

In saluting Kennedy as "one of the giants of American political life," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn't offering pro forma praise for the dead. He was stating a fact. Kennedy was one of the few senators to leave an imprint exceeding that of most presidents.

Whether it was cooperating with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) on health insurance for children or with George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind, he achieved the sort of bipartisanship often preached in Washington but seldom practiced. And not all of his cooperation with Republicans involved marquee issues. In the late 1980s, the liberal Kennedy and the conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina successfully pressed for legislation to reduce disparities in criminal sentencing, which often resulted in disproportionate punishment for racial minorities.

Kennedy was a persuasive refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. Compared with his elder office-holding brothers, a pair of hardened political realists, he was a ne'er-do-well when he was elected to the Senate in 1962 to finish out John F. Kennedy's term, and his early performance wasn't auspicious. But, after the assassinations of John and Robert F. Kennedy, his influence grew, and he ascended to the second-ranking position in the Democratic leadership.

Kennedy lost that position to Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia in 1971, a year and a half after fleeing the scene of an auto accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked in his brother Robert's 1968 presidential campaign. Forty years later, Kennedy's behavior that night remains shocking in its crassness. He abandoned his submerged car and its occupant, waited several hours to inform the police and asked for forgiveness in a calculated speech crafted in part by the legendary Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. It's inconceivable today that any senator guilty of such recklessness and cowardice would be returned to office by the voters. Thanks to the family mystique in Massachusetts, he was.

"Chappaquiddick" was an indelible stain on Kennedy's reputation, and a boon for Republicans when leaders in their party (especially Richard Nixon) were found to have engaged in wrongdoing. "Nobody died at Watergate" wasn't just a bumper sticker; it effectively encapsulated the view that the politician who initially attempted to avoid responsibility for a young woman's death had no business condemning the moral lapses of other individuals or of society.

Yet, without ever exorcising the ghost of Chappaquiddick, Kennedy reclaimed much of the moral authority he squandered in that tragedy through the painstaking performance of his duties. Except for the awkward interlude of an ill-considered campaign for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, he made the Senate his arena. In time, he adapted his vision of equality and inclusiveness to issues barely broached in the 1960s. He was a leading advocate for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act signed by President George H.W. Bush, which expanded the notion of civil rights to include "reasonable accommodation" of disabled people. Most recently, Kennedy co-sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. (Not all of his accomplishments were domestic. He played an influential and moderating role in the Northern Ireland peace process.)

Kennedy made several missteps in his long career. His primary challenge to the centrist President Jimmy Carter probably contributed to Ronald Reagan's landslide general-election victory. His hyperbolic warning that confirming Robert H. Bork for the Supreme Court would usher in the return of segregated lunch counters and back-alley abortions sowed the seeds of today's petty partisanship over judicial selection.

Taken all in all, however, Kennedy contributed enormously to the realization of the sort of society he championed, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his failure to win the White House.

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