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The late Senator Edward Kennedy.
News and Opinion

A Personal Farewell to Senator Kennedy

-- Ellen G. Witman

On Saturday, August 29, I stood on the East Lawn of the U.S. Capitol with approximately 4,000 other people waiting for the hearse carrying Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the limousines filled with Kennedy family and intimates to arrive. Directly across the road, the US Capitol gleamed white in the August sun. On its steps stood nearly 900 Senate staff members, many of whom worked for Kennedy at one time or another during the 46 years he dedicated himself to the institution that he loved. Kennedy’s staff members were considered to be the best and the brightest on Capitol Hill and they were fiercely loyal to him even decades after leaving his employ.

In Boston that morning Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica was packed with 1500 notables including President Obama and the First Lady as well as former presidents and first ladies Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, George W. and Laura Bush, and Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, Congressional leaders, Cabinet members, foreign dignitaries and other luminaries. Rain poured down as the mourners left the church. Still, tens of thousands of men, women and children stood silently, getting soaked, wanting just one last glimpse of the man who represented Massachusetts for nearly half a century.

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In Washington, D.C., Kennedy’s second home, the scene could not have been more different. It was hot and sunny. Several Senators and Representatives who had not gone to Boston stood or sat waiting with the rest of us. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), the only sitting Senator to have served longer than Ted Kennedy, sat in his wheelchair and wiped the tears that would not stop flowing from his eyes. Yet the vast majority of the faces on the Capitol steps would not have been recognized by the press or public. They were the largely anonymous staffers who serve Members of Congress in myriad ways large and small, working long hours, doing the public’s business, educating their bosses on a dizzying array of subjects from water rights to new farming techniques, refugee crises around the world to preparations for a swine flu epidemic at home. They draft legislation, organize hearings, craft speeches and press releases and make very sure it is their bosses who get the credit and visibility for them. A sizeable number of those waiting had had the good fortune to work for Senator Kennedy; some did so ten, twenty or more years ago, and a few served him until the day he died and will continue working in his office until it is packed up and ready to turn over to someone else.

Across the street, I remained standing in my place in the front row of the crowd for three hours waiting for the delayed motorcade. I spoke to a number of colleagues who, like me, are advocates for nonprofit organizations - lobbyists for health care reform, women and children’s issues, affordable housing, refugees and immigrants, the environment, etc. As we stood, growing “ripe” in the heat and press of the crowd, we talked quietly with friends, colleagues and strangers, sharing memories of legislative battles and the leader who brought intelligence, humor and passion to the causes of our lives. The Senate without its “Lion?” None of us could imagine it.

I came to Washington, D.C. in January of 1973. With the exception of a two year stint in graduate school in Philadelphia (’1975 and 1976), I have been here ever since. During my career as an advocate for 35 plus years, I have worked on dozens of issues including some of the most pressing priorities for the Jewish community. Senator Edward M. Kennedy was a critical leader on almost every one of them.

A few of the highlights:

Soviet Jewry

In the 1980s, I was the legislative director for the Council of Jewish Federations (now part of United Jewish Communities). When Mikhail Gorbachov became leader of the former Soviet Union and implemented his policies of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring), the doors opened to allow hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel and the United States. Throughout the next decade approximately forty thousand Soviet Jews a year came to the US under the auspices of HIAS and CJF.

How did we arrange for so many visas? We went to the Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, Ted Kennedy, who was a long-time supporter of freedom for Soviet Jews. He consulted with the ranking Republican, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and spoke to the White House and State Department to secure the visas. Year after year he made sure the door was open to refugees fleeing oppression and persecution, not just Soviet Jews, but Vietnamese, Laotians, Salvadorans, Cubans and others. He was the champion of the oppressed and displaced, a resonant voice in the Senate chamber reminding his colleagues that America is a nation of immigrants and the hope of freedom-seeking people the world round.

Judicial Nominations

In his first term, President George W. Bush sought to appoint a large number of appellate court judges. These are lifetime judicial appointments. Appellate courts are the last stop before the Supreme Court, and since the Supreme Court hears only about 100 cases a year, the vast majority of appellate court decisions are final. It therefore matters a great deal who sits on the bench. President Bush’s team sought out some of the most conservative and controversial judges and lawyers in the country to nominate. Their confirmation battles were long, loud and ugly.

Senator Kennedy, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked with a large coalition of advocates to see that information about the nominees’ records and decisions was disseminated to all Senators, the media and the public. He was determined to keep the worst nominees from being confirmed. It was my good fortune in 2003 to be filling in as the head of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) while my colleague, Sammi Moshenberg, who has held the position for nearly 30 years, took a sabbatical year. I was proud to represent NCJW in the coalition and to participate in Senate meetings and press events that exposed the potentially far-reaching consequences for reproductive rights, same sex marriage, the environment, women’s rights, and the separation of church and state among others issues if these nominees were confirmed. (Unfortunately, most of the other major Jewish organizations took a pass and did not take positions on these nominees.) Senator Kennedy’s passionate leadership in the confirmation hearings – along with Senators Leahy, Schumer and others – helped assure that far right ideologues did not capture our judicial system.

The late Senator Edward Kennedy shares a joke with President Obama.

Mental Health Parity

For more than a dozen years Senator Kennedy fought to reform health insurance policies by requiring that mental health and substance abuse treatment be given parity with medical-surgical benefits – same co-pays, same deductibles, same time limits, and same out-of-pocket expenses. He and Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) introduced mental health parity legislation in every new session of Congress. In 2008, his son, Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), and Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN) introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives. Father and son worked relentlessly to garner support for the legislation from advocacy groups, employers and even insurance companies. Finally, in October 2008, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 was enacted into law. (It was named for Sen. Wellstone, an original sponsor, who was killed in a plane crash several years ago and Sen. Domenici who retired at the end of 2008.)

I served as executive director of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors in 2007 and 2008 and was fortunate to be included in several meetings and events with the Kennedys, their staffs and representatives of numerous nonprofit organizations. Ted Kennedy’s grasp of the issue, his analysis of the political situation, and his insight into the strategic path to success was, as always, extraordinary.

On November 20, 2008 President Bush held a special signing ceremony at the White House with Ted and Patrick Kennedy and the other bill sponsors in attendance. Afterward, Patrick Kennedy summed up what all of us were feeling when he said, “…on a personal level, clearly, savoring this victory with my father at this point in our lives — at this moment in his life — is a dream come true. It nearly broke my heart to think that we wouldn’t have time to get it done with him, and to celebrate it with him in the way that we are now going to be able to celebrate it.”

President Obama’s eulogy (text and video).

I was not a friend of Senator Kennedy’s; I did not know him personally. I am just one of thousands of men and women who work on causes that he cared deeply about and who admired and benefited from his leadership. As President Obama said in his eulogy of Senator Kennedy, “We loved this kind and tender hero.”

The loss I feel is as much for our nation as for myself. The voice that rang out with indignation, that cried out for compassion, that called out for action, and that sang out with wit and joy is silent. Who can fill his shoes? Who is capable of carrying the torch? Perhaps no one person can. Perhaps we all, collectively, must.

To read about Senator Kennedy’s accomplishments and some of the statements and tributes made after his death click the links below.

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