He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.
Born to one of the wealthiest American families, Mr. Kennedy spoke for the downtrodden in his public life while living the heedless private life of a playboy and a rake for many of his years. Dismissed early in his career as a lightweight and an unworthy successor to his revered brothers, he grew in stature over time by sheer longevity and by hewing to liberal principles while often crossing the partisan aisle to enact legislation. A man of unbridled appetites at times, he nevertheless brought a discipline to his public work that resulted in an impressive catalog of legislative achievement across a broad landscape of social policy.
Mr. Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor. He was chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at his death. But he was more than a legislator. He was a living legend whose presence insured a crowd and whose hovering figure haunted many a president.
Mr. Kennedy “deserves recognition not just as the leading senator of his time, but as one of the greats in its history, wise in the workings of this singular institution, especially its demand to be more than partisan to accomplish much,” Mr. Clymer wrote in his biography.A devastating loss, for sure. It would be a great thing to see the American health care debate become civilized and ultimately successful out of some measure of respect or perspective as a result.
“The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits, but sails against the wind.”