TOPICS > Politics

Kennedy Leaves Legacy as Champion for Health Care

August 26, 2009 at 6:38 PM EDT
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks are joined by historian Ellen Fitzpatrick and health care advocate Ron Pollack to discuss Kennedy's political legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a look back at Senator Edward Kennedy’s legislative and political record, and to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: After nearly five decades of service in the U.S. Senate, Senator Kennedy left his handprints all over the nation’s laws. Republicans and Democrats agree his legacy is a remarkable one.

We’re joined now by four who watched or worked with Senator Kennedy over the years: NewsHour regulars Mark Shields and David Brooks; University of New Hampshire history Professor Ellen Fitzpatrick; and Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, a health care advocacy group.

So, Mark, his legislative record, which we’ve been hearing about so much tonight, was it a byproduct of vision or simple longevity?

MARK SHIELDS: It was a lot more than longevity. I mean, we’ve had senators serve not as long, not many as long as he did, but we’ve had people with greater seniority.

What it was, was an incredible ability, which has been touched on in the earlier discussions. He never demonized the other side, a colleague across the aisle. He always viewed today’s adversary as tomorrow’s potential ally. And it was a gift.

And whenever you stood in the Senate press gallery and watched him go on the floor, I don’t care when it was, other senators would flock to him, and he always had a personal note for each of them, and a good-natured needle.

It was a remarkable ability to be at the same time someone you always knew where he stood on an issue and what he stood for, yet at the same time he was the one who could establish compromise and consensus. It wasn’t just transactional trying to find the middle ground. It was an incredible gift, and he was a gifted, gifted legislator.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, David, as Orrin Hatch alluded to earlier, he was a liberal to the bone. At any point during his career, did that liberalism begin to go out of fashion?

DAVID BROOKS: At every point in his career, almost. You think about some of his major speeches, 1995, Newt Gingrich had just taken over, he gives a speech really replanting the flag. Jimmy Carter’s president. He thinks Jimmy Carter is tending more to the center. He plants the flag. He continually is planting the flag through lots of his career.

But what he had was not only the firm principles, but he also had the craftsmanship. Being a senator is a craftsman. It’s a craft. It’s a job. And if you ask senators who were the best at it, they would all say him.

And it was a form of intelligence. I used to interview him, and I remember the last interview I had with him a few — well, maybe more than a year ago now, asked him about liberalism, and his answers were fine. They were fine.

But I asked him about an arcane piece of the immigration bill which he’d done with John McCain, as a matter of fact, and he was talking about subsection 16, paragraph C. He had a phenomenal memory and intelligence for that kind of stuff.

And for a guy who grew up in this charismatic family who could have skated on all that, to have discovered this skill, this capacity for details and deal-making, that was, I think, when he really found himself.

Example of liberal idealism

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire
For a 50 -- almost a 50-year period, a half a century, he provided a very visible reminder of a kind of liberal idealism that first came to the fore with the election of his brother in 1960.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, how about that? Did the contrast between the desire or the ability to skate through on charisma and the Kennedy name and the nuts-and-bolts side of Ted Kennedy, which won out most of the time?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think that the two actually worked together entirely and that what's remarkable about Ted Kennedy is that, for a 50 -- almost a 50-year period, a half a century, he provided a very visible reminder of a kind of liberal idealism that first came to the fore with the election of his brother in 1960, and that was kept alive after his brother's assassination with the candidacy of Robert Kennedy in 1968, and that Ted Kennedy himself then carried through in the ensuing years.

There's a kind of continuity to the story, and it's one that is intertwined with that of the nation itself over almost a 50-year period. Whether liberalism was in or out of fashion, the idea was to use the power of the federal government to assist those most in need, to ensure that all Americans had a decent standard of living, decent health care, access to education, to a good job, and to a clean environment, to their most fundamental rights.

Think about the fact that, when Ted Kennedy began his senatorial career, he worked first on legislation to get rid of the poll tax and then lived to see Barack Obama elected as the first African-American president, something that could never have happened had they not gotten rid of the poll tax and segregation itself. So the two are totally intertwined, in my view.

Health care champion

Ron Pollack
Families USA
He inspired so many people in the Congress, outside of the Congress, on health care reform, and he accomplished a great deal, often across the aisle.

GWEN IFILL: How about the health care piece of this, Ron Pollack? You worked with him closely on this idea of getting universal health care coverage, and it's something which he is going to his grave without having quite achieved. But how essential was it to who he was?

RON POLLACK: Oh, this was really the cause of his lifetime. He cared so passionately about reforming America's health care system. He accomplished a great deal in the Senate, but he looked forward to really getting high-quality, affordable health care for everyone.

I remember -- the last time I saw him was at the White House summit on health reform, and nobody expected him to come. President Obama came in, and the senator came in, and the electricity in that room was just something you've never experienced before. Everyone just got up. And, you know, people just could not stop applauding.

And he inspired so many people in the Congress, outside of the Congress, on health care reform, and he accomplished a great deal, often across the aisle. One of his greatest victories was the enactment of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which he co-sponsored with Orrin Hatch, and that legislation was part of a budget bill.

Now, these budget bills are designed to reduce spending, and he was able to get a new program in 1997, in a Republican Congress, adopted, one of his major accomplishments.

GWEN IFILL: If he had been part of the argument of the debate in the last year, an active part, physically on the Hill, do you think we'd be in a different place in the health care debate?

RON POLLACK: It's very hard to say. I mean, he actually played a very active role in the months prior to his death. He started around August, September, he asked his staff to create a thing that we affectionately called the "workhorse group."

We met twice a week. And it was strange bedfellows in the room. It was the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the hospitals, the physicians, labor, business. And we met for two hours almost each meeting, and so he actually was trying to achieve something that was bipartisan.

I'm not sure whether the Republican leadership felt convinced that it was in their interest to allow health reform to pass, and I don't know whether the senator could have overcome that.


MARK SHIELDS: Ron Pollack can't say the answer. I can; I'll risk it. We would be in a different place.

I mean, Ted Kennedy brought to it not only the gifts we've talked about, but an understanding of the issue, the history, the history of the people involved. He knew -- it's unthinkable to me that, even with stoutest Republican opposition and the conclusion in many parts of the Republican Party that it was in their interest to sabotage and submarine the Obama health plan, he would have figured out a way to get a couple of Republicans.

And Mike DeWine, the former Republican congressman from Ohio...

GWEN IFILL: Senator.

MARK SHIELDS: ... congressman, senator, lieutenant governor -- said to Bill Hershey of the Dayton Daily News he was the last person you wanted to see on the other side and the first person you wanted to have on your side in a fight.

And I just -- I really think that -- that summed it up. And I mean no criticism of the people who are there, but it was an empty place against the sky without Ted Kennedy in this health care fight.

Family legacy

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
He felt the burden of following in his brothers' footsteps. At one point in his life, he wanted to move out to New Mexico and run from there. But his father said, "No, you run from Massachusetts. I've got a seat for you right here."

GWEN IFILL: David, over the course of his career, how much did his family legacy shape his course? And how much did his own personal foibles limit that course?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, obviously, quite a lot. I mean, it was a very competitive family. He felt the burden of following in his brothers' footsteps. At one point in his life, he wanted to move out to New Mexico and run from there. But his father said, "No, you run from Massachusetts. I've got a seat for you right here." So he never quite broke away.

But I think, on the other hand, I think the family legacy -- obviously, the name got elected and things like that, but the legacy of service was always core to who he was.

The other thing I think -- and this goes to the debate about health care -- I'm not sure it would be that different. I think he was a great legislator, as I've said. But he, more than his brothers, really, was pretty much a more classic liberal, had much more unproblematic faith in government than they did and also more unproblematic faith in government than most of the American people had.

And so that is why he was remained and why the liberalism he espoused and championed has remained more or less a minority position in the country. And that's somewhat of a legacy of the Kennedys, but not totally.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Ellen? What about the legacy of the Kennedys? How much of this is just about the lore of the Kennedy name? And how much of this is about Edward M. Kennedy as an individual?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think, again, it's both, Gwen. It's not simply a matter that he was a more classically liberal senator than his brothers were.

His brothers lived in an entirely different political culture than Ted Kennedy did. That is, they didn't have to face many of the issues that he had to take a stand on, issues like abortion rights, issues like the women's movement, which President Kennedy, in fact, did have a commission on women's status, but the women's movement came late in this story.

There are many -- gay liberation -- many of the issues that the Democratic Party has struggled with, Ted Kennedy had to stake out positions. Liberalism facing these issues. His brothers never dealt with any of that, nor did they deal with a political culture that showed absolute irreverence for political figures and that put their private lives under extraordinary scrutiny.

So I'm not sure that he was more classically liberal. He changed over time. He evolved. His ideas evolved. But he remained a source and a very visible one.

He looked like his brothers. He sounded like his brothers. He invoked his brothers. But why? For a core set of beliefs and values, ideas about the nation that he brought through a 50-year period in American history, and it's really quite an extraordinary story.

Legacy of bipartisanship

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
He leaves a legacy of bipartisanship in the Senate, a Senate which is fractious and fractured and an unpleasant place.

GWEN IFILL: Mark and David, final thoughts on the passing of Edward M. Kennedy and the kind of void he's going to leave.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he leaves a legacy of bipartisanship in the Senate, a Senate which is fractious and fractured and an unpleasant place, and it's an ability to stand firmly for what you believe and, at the same time, to see in those with whom you disagree humanity and a capacity for compromise and for consensus.

And if senators were still living there and still working there would be inspired by that example and legacy of Ted Kennedy, then they sure would be well served, as it has been by his 47 years in public life.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would just say he could exercise great anger when he disapproved, but it was not resentment, and so it never got quite as personal. And for conservatives who are now in the wilderness, that is a model for them to find the best in your tradition and to follow it the way he followed liberalism when it was -- you know, during the Reagan years, when liberalism was in the wilderness.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick of the University of New Hampshire, David Brooks, Mark Shields, Ron Pollack, thank you all very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.