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Remembering Ted Kennedy: Is he the last of the great liberals?

The passing of a Kennedy is always big news, as it was last week when Sen. Ted Kennedy, 77, died after a long struggle with cancer. Friends and foes remembered him for his “courage and dignity” and “his lifelong commitment and service to his country,” as former President Jimmy Carter recalled.

Sen. John Kerry lauded his fellow senator from Massachusetts for his unwavering commitment to the cause of national health care, which Kennedy described as “the cause of my life,” when he spoke one year ago at the Democratic National Convention, one of his last major public appearances. Kennedy’s son Patrick said afterward, “It kind of felt like this grand finale.”

Kennedy “taught us how to fight, how to laugh, how to treat each other, and how to turn idealism into action,” Kerry said. “And in these last 14 months, he taught us much more about how to live life, sailing into the wind one last time,” a reference to Kennedy’s fondness of sailing.

With his record of fighting for health care reform, Kennedy’s death has placed the future of the Obama Administration’s proposed health care changes in jeopardy. Many are questioning the merits of President Obama’s willingness to compromise with conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats and Republicans, saying that anything short of sweeping reforms would tarnish Kennedy’s legacy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Robert Byrd have both proposed naming the health care bill after Kennedy and have vowed to honor his legacy. Others however, fear that Kennedy’s passing has actually hurt the prospect of health care reform. His empty seat represents the key filibuster-proof 60th vote and without his leadership as the chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, a more reform-minded bill may not be able to pass the Senate.

However, everyone can agree that a world without Teddy Kennedy represents a major sea change in American politics. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on his blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” was terse in his reaction to Kennedy’s death: “I don’t have much to say, except a personal thought. I remember the days, several decades ago, when Ted Kennedy was treated — mainly, but not only, on the right — as a figure of derision. He was mocked for his appearance, his personal life, his unabashed liberalism. And now he’s remembered as a great man. The thing is, he didn’t change — he always was.”

In response to that post, reader Allen Webb wrote, “He was one of the few who did not run from the Liberal label.”  And in an era of increasingly polarizing politics, many wonder if the ‘Liberal’ label means the same as it once did.

In his 47-year Senate career, Kennedy championed such causes as civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment for constitutional equality for women, and health care. He played a major role in passing many laws that touch the lives of all Americans, including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the National Cancer Act of 1971, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act in 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Mental Health Parity Act in 1996 and 2008, the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act this year.

Kennedy’s death last week touched questions of not only who will fill his Senate seat, but who will carry the Kennedy torch of public service now? Or as Nick Baumann of Mother Jones wrote, “Teddy Kennedy’s funeral will be a huge moment in the history of the Democratic party and the nation.”

Does Kennedy’s death mark the end of an era? Will the outpouring of sympathy have any impact on Kennedy’s long cause of national health care? Why did the Kennedy clan loom so large in the American conscience? What made Ted Kennedy a “liberal”? Why do Kennedy family stories captivate Americans? What will be Kennedy’s greatest legacy? Is Kennedy really the last of the great liberals? Why or why not?

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