Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

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Ted Kennedy fought longer than the doctors had expected he could, and yet, died before he could see the outcome of the battle that he had often described as the greatest cause of his life. “This whole issue in terms of universal and comprehensive care has always burned in my soul,” he said in a fiery speech on the floor of the Massachusetts State House in 2006, as he joined with a Republican Governor to convince the legislature to make his home state the first in the nation to provide near-universal health care coverage to its citizens. Whether the country will do the same is made more difficult as a result of his passing. And yet, whatever law results will be very much Ted Kennedy’s legacy, and is almost certain to be named in his honor.

On TIME.com, Richard Lacayo sums up the mark left by “the brother who mattered most” this way:

There was a time 40 years ago, right after the assassination of his brother Robert, when it looked like Edward Kennedy would become President someday by right of succession. The Kennedy curse, the one that had seen all three of his brothers cut down in their prime, had created for him a sort of Kennedy prerogative, or at least the illusion of one, an inevitable claim on the White House. For years he seemed like a man simply waiting for the right moment to take what everybody knew was coming his way.

Everybody was wrong. Ted Kennedy would never reach the White House. His weaknesses — and the long shadow of Chappaquiddick — were an obstacle that even his strengths couldn’t overcome. But his failure to get to the presidency opened the way to the true fulfillment of his gifts, which was to become one of the greatest legislators in American history.

His absence has been felt all year on Capitol Hill, and his loss comes at a particularly difficult moment in the battle for health care reform. It deprives the Senate of that crucial 60th Democratic vote needed to overcome a filibuster. What to do about that raises a particularly touchy question:

Massachusetts Governors, like most others in the country, used to be able to appoint a replacement in the case of a Senate vacancy. But Democrats there, in a cute move that they have come to regret, changed that law in 2004 so that they could prevent Republican Mitt Romney from appointing a successor to John Kerry, should he have won the presidency.

As things stand now, it would take up to five months before a special election could be held to fill the seat. Kennedy, in his final days, sought to rectify that, proposing that the law be changed so that a temporary caretaker could be put in the job. “I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator,’’ Kennedy wrote in a letter just a week ago to Governor Deval Patrick. “I also believe it is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election.’’ Under Kennedy’s proposal, the seat would temporarily go to someone who gave an “explicit personal commitment” not to seek the seat on a permanent basis.

Of course, there are all kinds of problems with that arrangement — not the least of which would be how to write that kind of commitment into law. But the idea may nonetheless fly, despite initial resistance, simply because it was Kennedy’s last wish. Looking over the longer term, that special election is likely to be an interesting one. Kennedy family politics alone are intriguing: Ted was known to have wanted his widow Vicki succeed him (though family sources have said she has no desire for it), and his nephew Joe Kennedy is also believed to have his eye on the seat. But without Ted, the Kennedy fiat will lost much of its power. And there are plenty of others who are interested in filling Massachusetts’ first Senate vacancy in a quarter-century. Among those being mentioned are a host of House members, including Ed Markey, Stephen Lynch, Michael Capuano, James McGovern and William Delahunt. There are Republican possibilities as well, though it is hard to imagine any of them having a real shot, given the circumstances around this particular election.

Politicians may pass, but politics go on. That is something that Ted Kennedy would have understood better than anyone else.