When Senator Kennedy died yesterday, it was as the champion of all Americans' right to decent, affordable health care. He left his mark on so many pieces of health legislation that it's easy to forget his lifelong commitments to civil rights, education, labor and fair wages, the alleviation of poverty, human rights, peace in Northern Ireland and, indeed, peace around the world. Kennedy opposed the war in Iraq, calling it "the best vote I cast in the United States Senate." In 1995, he outmaneuvered the Gingrich-Lott Republican leadership to secure a long overdue increase in the minimum wage. In 1994, he helped jump-start peace negotiations in Northern Ireland by urging President Clinton to issue a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. A powerful voice opposing apartheid in South Africa, Kennedy's commitment to civil rights at home began as early as his support for Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acting of 1965.
But it was on health care that Kennedy left his greatest mark. Though his long-held vision of a comprehensive national health insurance program for all Americans did not come to pass during his lifetime, he was no quixotic figure when it came to health care or anything else. The consummate practical politician, Kennedy authored or co-authored the following landmark legislation, all of which became law in part because of his leadership:
- Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act of 1986
- Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
- Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990
- National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993
- Freedom of Access to Clinics Act of 1994
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996
- Food and Drug Modernization Act of 1997
- Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) (1997)
- Children's Health Act of 2000
- Project BioShield Act of 2003
- Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2005
- FDA Amendments Act of 2007
- Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act of 2008
This list is accomplishment enough; that Kennedy's reach extended far beyond health care is tribute to a remarkable career, one of the most influential in the history of the United States Senate.
Although the right demonized Kennedy for most of his career, his successfully reached across the aisle and obtained bipartisan support for much of this legislation, most notably from Republican Senators Dole (disabilities), Domenici (mental illness), and Kassebaum (portability and accountability).
His closest friend in the Senate may well have been Orrin Hatch (R-UT), with whom he co-sponsored legislation as recently as this year (the Serve America Act). Said Alan Kazai, CEO of Be The Change, Inc., "Senator Kennedy is the godfather of the modern national and community service movement..." Kennedy's signal achievements in this area were authoring the National Community and Service Trust Act of 1990 and the creation of AmeriCorps in 1993.
As anyone knows, Kennedy's personal life was not above reproach, although that settled down greatly with his 1992 marriage to Victoria Reggie. The tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne dogged him for his entire life and may well have cost him the presidency. Whether or not Ted Kennedy may or may not have made a great president. But he was without a question a great senator, the likes of which we may see again.
Note: Unless otherwise linked, all direct quotes come from the document Accomplishments of Senator Kennedy 1962-2009, available here as a .pdf file.