As Ted Kennedy recovers from his successful brain surgery, thoughts turn to his impact on American life.
Ted Kennedy's contemporary reputation is so bound up in his accomplishments as a legislator that it's easy to forget that there was at one time a very real chance that he'd become president of the United States. Kennedy loyalists had long hoped the youngest brother of Jack and Bobby would assume the leadership of the party, but it was only in 1979, when sitting Democratic president Jimmy Carter was at the nadir of his popularity, that Ted Kennedy launched a presidential bid.
For a staunch party loyalist, this couldn't have been an easy decision. But Carter was, in Kennedy's view, endangering the party, and it seemed possible that the resurgent Republicans could take the White House, pushing the country toward the hard-edged Goldwaterite conservatism that the Kennedy family had long vigorously opposed.
Kennedy entered the primary campaign leading Carter in the polls, but then the Iranian revolution, and in particular the hostage crisis during which radical Iranian students seized the United States embassy in Teheran, gave the sitting President a new lease on life. Because Kennedy was first and foremost a domestic candidate, deeply committed to revitalizing the New Deal tradition, the threatening international environment put him at a distinct disadvantage. Tellingly, he won his biggest primary victories -- which came too late in the game to unseat Carter -- only after the public had soured on the President's approach to the hostage crisis, a souring that would eventually deliver the White House to Ronald Reagan.
At the Democratic National Convention, held in August in New York, the party was still bitterly divided. Kennedy, in what many still remember as his finest hour, gave a startlingly good speech -- a speech that arguably surpassed any given by his older brothers -- articulating the case for a more egalitarian, more energetic liberalism, one that deepened and extended the New Deal legacy by instituting national healthcare, and by including blacks, Latinos, and other excluded communities in American prosperity. Kennedy anticipated the Democratic future by emphasizing the health of the natural environment and the rights of women. "We have always been the party of hope, he told the assembled delegates. So this year let us offer new hope, new hope to an America uncertain about the present, but unsurpassed in its potential for the future." It's not hard to see why Kennedy has developed such a strong connection to Barack Obama, and why some suggest that Obama has taken up the Kennedy legacy.
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