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Edward Kennedy (1932-2009): Veteran Senator Championed Civil Rights, Healthcare, Working Poor in 46-Year Career

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Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts died last night in his home in Hyannis Port after a bout with brain cancer. He was seventy-seven years old. Kennedy served in the Senate for forty-six years and was known by some as the “liberal lion” for his steadfast advocacy of progressive causes. In recent years, Kennedy endorsed President Obama’s bid for the White House in what was seen as a key turning point in the presidential campaign. Kennedy voted against authorizing the Iraq war in 2002, later calling it the best vote he ever cast in the Senate. He was the last surviving brother of the generation of Kennedys who dominated US politics in the 1960s. We play highlights of Kennedy’s remarks on Iraq, civil rights, his endorsement of President Obama, and his 1968 eulogy for his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. We also speak with former New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has died after a bout with brain cancer. He was seventy-seven years old. Kennedy served in the Senate for forty-six years, earning the nickname the “liberal lion” for his steadfast advocacy of progressive causes. In recent years, Kennedy endorsed President Obama’s bid for the White House in what was seen as a key turning point in the presidential campaign. Soon after that endorsement, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Afterwards, Kennedy largely remained out of the public eye but made a triumphant return at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last August. He addressed the convention to a standing ovation.

    SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: We will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality healthcare as a fundamental right and not a privilege. We can meet these challenges with Barack Obama. Yes, we can, and finally, yes, we will.

    Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race and of gender and group against group and straight against gay. And Barack Obama will be a commander-in-chief who understands that young Americans in uniform must never be committed to a mistake, but always for a mission worthy of their bravery.

    We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavor, but when John Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn’t say, “It’s too far to get there. We shouldn’t even try.” Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon. Yes, we are all Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.

ANJALI KAMAT: Senator Kennedy was also a leading voice in the Senate opposing the invasion of Iraq. He voted against the 2002 resolution allowing the President to use force against Iraq, calling it the best vote he cast in the Senate. In a speech in April 2004 at the Brookings Institution, Kennedy likened Iraq to the war in Vietnam.

    SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Sadly, this administration has failed to live up to basic standards of open and candid debate. On issue after issue, they tell the American people one thing and do another. They repeatedly invent facts to support their preconceived agenda, facts which administration officials knew or should have known were not true. This pattern has prevailed since President Bush’s earliest days in office. And as a result, this President has now created the largest credibility gap since Richard Nixon. He has broken the basic bond of trust with the American people.

    In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration misled the American people about the threat to the nation posed by the Iraqi regime. A year after the war began, Americans are questioning why the administration went to war in Iraq, when Iraq was not an imminent threat, when it had no weapons, no persuasive links to al-Qaeda, and no connection to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, and no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.

    Tragically, in making the decision to go to war, the Bush administration allowed its own stubborn ideology to trump the cold hard evidence that Iraq posed no immediate threat. They misled Congress and the American people, because the administration knew that it could not obtain the consent of Congress for the war if all the facts were known.

    By going to war in Iraq on false pretenses and neglecting the real war on terrorism, President Bush gave al-Qaeda two years — two whole years — to regroup and recover in the border regions of Afghanistan. As the terrorist bombings in Madrid and other reports now indicate, al-Qaeda has used that time to plant terrorist cells in countries throughout the word and establish ties with terrorist groups in many different lands.

    By going to war in Iraq, we have strained our ties with longstanding allies around the world, allies whose help we clearly and urgently need on intelligence, on law enforcement, and militarily. We have made America more hated in the world and made the war on terrorism harder to win.

    The result is a massive and very dangerous crisis in our foreign policy. We have lost the respect of other nations in the world. Where do we go to get back our respect? How do we reestablish the working relationships we need with other countries to win the war on terrorism and advance the ideals we share? And how can we possibly expect President Bush to do that? He’s the problem, not the solution. Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam, and this country needs a new president.

ANJALI KAMAT: Senator Ted Kennedy was also an ardent supporter of civil rights. During the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts in September 2005, Kennedy talked about Hurricane Katrina in his opening statement and how the disaster showed that poverty and racial injustice still permeate American society.

    SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: The stark and tragic images of human suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have reminded us yet again that civil rights and equal rights are still the great unfinished business of America. The suffering has been disproportionately borne by the weak, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, and largely African Americans, who were forced by poverty, illness and unequal opportunity to stay behind and bear the brunt of the storm’s winds and floods. I believe that kind of disparate impact is morally wrong in this, the richest country in the world.

    One question we must consider today is how we can take action to unify our nation, heal racial division, end poverty and give real-life meaning to the constitutional mandate that there be equal protection under law. I believe that the Constitution is not hostile to the idea that national problems can be solved at the national level through the cooperative efforts of the three coequal branches of government, the Congress, the executive and courts.

    But not every president, not every legislator and not every judge agrees that the federal government has the power to address and to try to remedy the twin national problems of poverty and access to equal opportunity. I’m not talking about a handout, but a hand up, to give all of our citizens a fair shot at the American dream.

AMY GOODMAN: Ted Kennedy speaking in 2005. One of Kennedy’s most memorable speeches from the 1960s was when he delivered the eulogy for his brother Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated June 4th, 1968. Ted Kennedy, the youngest of nine children and the last surviving brother, spoke at Robert Kennedy’s funeral at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

    SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. As he said many times in many parts of this nation to those he touched and who sought to touch him, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Ted Kennedy eulogizing his brother Robert Kennedy, 1968. Senator Kennedy died early this morning in Hyannis Port at his home. He was seventy-seven years old. He died of brain cancer.

We’re joined right now on the telephone by Adam Clymer. He’s a former reporter for the New York Times and author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, joining us on the phone from Washington, DC.

Welcome, Adam. Your thoughts today?

ADAM CLYMER: Well, it’s a sad day. The most strongest irony, I guess, is that the cause of his life for more than forty years has been national healthcare, and at a point when we may be closer to achieving it than at any time in the past, he’s not able to play a role. He hasn’t really played much of a role this year, but now he won’t play any.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about his life. I mean, you wrote a biography of Ted Kennedy. People know him today, but for the history, the whole trajectory of his life, start with his family, the significance of the Kennedys.

ADAM CLYMER: Well, he worshiped his brothers. He learned to swim from Joe, who died in World War II. He ran a campaign for Jack in 1958 for Senate. He was very close to the surviving brother, Robert, until his death.

He’s been — but I think the most important thing for sort of his career really is his upbringing. And the children were taught that verse from the Book of Luke: to those — “Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” They got a very strong Catholic upbringing from their mother, and their father said, yes, in essence, “You guys have an advantage, have advantages. Do something with them and give something back.”

That and also the fact of his sister Rosemary, who was retarded, and he knew she was different and needed special care. That’s one of the things that interested him in healthcare so early, knowing that his father, after a stroke, got the most expensive treatment, that he, after he broke his back, got perfect — you know, got great medical treatment. His children, one of his — two of his children had cancer. And, you know, cost never mattered to him, but he knew that cost put good medical care out of the reach of others.

ANJALI KAMAT: Adam Clymer, Senator Kennedy was a huge advocate of civil rights. Can you talk about some of the legislation he’s pushed forward over the past decades in this arena?

ADAM CLYMER: Well, he was a natural on the civil rights issue. He just came to it instinctively, perhaps even more quickly than his brothers. And in 1965, he sought to ban the poll tax as part of the Voting Rights Act. He narrowly lost on that effort. But from then on, he was in the thick of every civil rights debate — the fair housing legislation in the ’60s and then the stronger version in the ’80s.

Probably the most single dramatic example, though, of bills he passed that are civil rights bills was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which changed the way we look at the disabled and how we accommodate them.

But he was involved in all sorts of things. Title IX, equality for women in education, is another sort of dramatic example. In his last years, he was pushing legislation that would prohibit job discrimination against gays. He always called — every time we talked about civil rights, and I interviewed him a lot for the book, he called civil rights the unfinished business of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Clymer, we’re going to break for one minute, then come back to this conversation, talk about his own runs for president; talk about his three brothers who died, his oldest brother who was considered the jewel of the family until he died in a bomber raid, then John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy; and talk about his colleagues on healthcare today, as they say, “Oh, if Ted Kennedy was in the Senate, perhaps things would be different.” Our guest is Adam Clymer, the former reporter for the New York Times who wrote a biography of Ted Kennedy called Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, on this day hours after Ted Kennedy died of brain cancer at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Anjali Kamat, on this day, hours after Senator Ted Kennedy has died. He died of brain cancer at his home in Hyannis Port. He battled brain cancer far longer than his doctors thought he could. It was about a year and a half.

Our guest right now is Adam Clymer. He wrote a biography of Ted Kennedy called Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. He’s a former reporter for the New York Times.

Talk about Ted Kennedy’s own aspirations, his attempt at the presidency. Talk about Chappaquiddick and how it derailed so much of what he wanted to do and also how he came back from that.

ADAM CLYMER: Well, Ted sometimes casually thought about running for president. There was the sort of gossip in the early ’60s that first Jack and then Robert and then Ted would be president. At the same time, he was always thinking about a long Senate career. But after Jack’s death and then after Robert’s death, he sort of became — it sort of became obvious that he would try sometime. By the time — I mean, in fact, there were people who sought to have him run in 1968 in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination; he didn’t consider that seriously.

He did run in 1980. And I think that what crippled his race then was Chappaquiddick. We know the whole story. He was — drove off a bridge on an island with a young woman who drowned. He took too long to report it. And he got probably fairly gentle treatment from the local constabulary. He’s said this was with him every day of his life and that he deeply regrets it. But I think it crippled his run for the presidency, and he hadn’t expect it to, because he was easily forgiven and reelected by the voters of Massachusetts, so that that —-

After losing in 1980, he thought seriously about running in 1984, but he didn’t. His family didn’t want to go through that again. And besides, he had found some real satisfaction in focusing on the Senate and not having to think about the presidency every other day. And it’s in that period from 1981 forward that the bulk of his legislative achievements were registered and that he had a chance to become the greatest senator, I would say, of the twentieth century and this little sliver of the twenty-first that we’ve lived through.

ANJALI KAMAT: Adam Clymer, Senator Kennedy was known as the “liberal lion” of the Senate. I’m reading from the New York Times: “He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, pushed for peace in Northern Ireland, won a ban on arms sales to the dictatorship in Chile and denounced the Vietnam War.” What was your experience of talking to Senator Kennedy about international politics and US foreign policy?

ADAM CLYMER: Well, it’s interesting. That’s the thing I learned most as I worked on the book. I really hadn’t had a sense of his role on foreign policy. You’ve sketched most of the issues, though. I think before the segment began, you broadcast one of his speeches against the war in Iraq, where he was probably the most eloquent voice in the Senate in opposition.

He never thought that the benefits of democracy should be limited to those of us living under the US Constitution. He opposed dictatorship and tyranny, the countries you have mentioned, the Pakistani control of what’s now Bangladesh. And then he worried about famines abroad. He thought that the United States really could play a more democratic role in the world than it often seemed to.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Clymer, you came to know Ted Kennedy yourself, presumably, in writing this biography. What was he like personally? And how open was he with you in doing this biography?

ADAM CLYMER: Well, he was open on every subject; he wouldn’t discuss Chappaquiddick with me. But otherwise, we did perhaps twenty interviews. He was very helpful. He only interrupted them when a niece or a nephew called. If senators called, he didn’t interrupt them for that.

And I found him a very gracious host. My wife and I went to a cocktail party in Hyannis once when I was starting in on the book. And I knew most of the people there. She hardly knew anyone. Throughout the evening, he would bring people up, introduce them and sort of explain why they would be interested in each other. In some respects, he had exquisite manners.

AMY GOODMAN: So he attempted a run for the presidency, but ultimately announced that that was not his aim in life to be president. His reign as a senator, forty-six years, almost fifty years. Who competes with him, Robert Byrd, Robert Byrd who wept on the Senate floor when he heard that Ted Kennedy had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Talk about how he -— how he navigated the Senate, how he pushed legislation through.

ADAM CLYMER: Well, Byrd and Strom Thurmond are the only senators who’ve served longer than Ted. And he came to the Senate when it was a different place, when it was much more personal. Staffs were smaller. There was no C-SPAN, so if you wanted to know what was going on, you had to be on the Senate floor listening.

And he’s used the techniques that people had then. For example, with a tiny staff, you couldn’t purport to be expert on everything, so Kennedy told me he would rely on George McGovern, somebody he trusted in general, to brief him on farm agricultural policy. And he’s used that technique of talking to other senators. He would always go to their offices if he had something to deal with.

If you watched him vote on C-SPAN, Kennedy would come in with a three-by-five card with notes to talk to Senator So-and-so about this and Senator Jones about that, and he’d use that time. He came from a time when the Senate was a more personal place and used those techniques better than most of his colleagues.

AMY GOODMAN: In a few moments, we’re hoping to go to President Obama, who’s on Martha’s Vineyard. He made a call to Mrs. Kennedy about twenty-five minutes after Ted Kennedy died. He was woken up, of course, on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. And we hope to play that live.

Adam Clymer, what happens now? In the last weeks, Senator Kennedy’s family sent a letter to Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, about the succession plan in Massachusetts, about how the next senator will be chosen. Explain what’s happening now and how it came to be, the rules in Massachusetts.

ADAM CLYMER: Well, that always — this depends on Massachusetts politics, state politics, which is something the Kennedys always steered far away from, because it’s — well, it’s not one of the more distinguished state legislatures in America.

I don’t know what they — how they will feel when they come back at Labor Day. On the face of it, the idea that the state shouldn’t be lacking a senator for five months — and the current procedure allows for a special election. And it was set up for political reasons, to keep Mitt Romney, the Republican governor, from appointing a successor to John Kerry. And people say it would be hypocritical to change the law again now that there’s a Democratic governor. I’m not sure that hypocrisy has ever bothered the Massachusetts legislature very much. But after his funeral and all, there will start to be some intense jockeying for the seat, and the perceptions of people and their allies as to what would suit them best is something very hard to imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of this, I mean, because this five months that they have for a new election at this point in the rules, this is the time of the vote on healthcare.

ADAM CLYMER: Well, that and there — while there are — were, until his death, sixty Democrats in the Senate, both he and Robert Byrd have been very infrequent voters. And it takes sixty votes to block a filibuster in the Senate. And so far, there’s very little indication of Republican support for healthcare legislation, so that the Democrats might have to try to block it, to block a filibuster. It’s not clear whether they’ll get any Republican help or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Clymer, final thoughts on this day? Of course, it’s just hours after Senator Ted Kennedy has died. Do you know anything about what the plans are now for the funeral and where the family goes from here? Certainly, the patriarch of the greater Kennedy clan.

ADAM CLYMER: I don’t have any information about that, but my final thought is that Ted Kennedy affected hundreds of millions of American lives. If you vote at eighteen, he is the central figure in that. If you get Meals on Wheels at the other end of life, he’s the central figure there. There’s civil rights, a bunch of healthcare measures of some great significance. Probably the children’s healthcare plan is the most important. We’ve seen Ted Kennedy grow old, as we never saw his brothers grow old, but he’s probably had more impact on America than either of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Adam Clymer, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Former reporter for the New York Times, he’s author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.

And we are getting reports of responses around the world right now. Among those who have responded are Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We’re going to go to break, and then we will return. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Again, last night, early this morning, Senator Ted Kennedy died at the age of seventy-seven at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

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