Washington Watch: Ted Kennedy's Yiddishe 'neshama'
He represented a genre of politics that was critical to building the Jewish community's power in America.
My first job on Capitol Hill was as a legislative assistant for Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who had just returned to the Senate after four years as vice president and a narrowly-failed presidential bid. More than anything else, he wanted to pick up where he'd left off - actually where he'd begun when first elected in 1948 - as the champion of national health insurance.
He'd been a driving force for Medicare - national health insurance for the Geritol generation - but wasn't in the Senate to guide its passage by 1965, and he wound up in the background at the White House ceremony when Lyndon Johnson signed it into law as others got credit.
By his return in 1971, it was Ted Kennedy's issue and Humphrey had to settle for an unwelcome supporting role. That didn't dampen the Happy Warrior's enthusiasm or energy, and like his colleague from Massachusetts, he kept fighting for his dream until felled by cancer.
THESE TWO truly great senators came from very different backgrounds, but they shared a great passion for public service and a warmth for the Jewish community and Israel. The views and voting records of these unabashed liberals reflected those of most Jewish voters, and they were staunch supporters of Israel. Humphrey died at age 66 in 1978; Kennedy died last week at 77.
Kennedy's greatness took longer to develop; his career got off to an undistinguished start, but he rose to become one of the true giants of the Senate, mastering both the issues and the legislative process.
His passing is more than the death of a historic figure. He was among the last of a nearly extinct breed of public-spirited lawmakers who could be intensely partisan but also bipartisan dealmakers who knew when and how to craft compromises that left all sides feeling they had gained in the bargain.
He brought an enthusiasm, eloquence and passion to politics - qualities so rare in these far more cynical, resentful times; he was not motivated by anger and hatred and did not take positions simply because he wanted to destroy the other side.
He represented a genre of politics that was critical to building the Jewish community's power in America, based on a bipartisanship aimed at the common good, tikkun olam, not on reflexive, bitter partisanship.
Today there are too few like Humphrey and Kennedy, and Republicans John McCain and Orrin Hatch, and too many like South Carolina's Jim DeMint, the first termer who has made it his mission to defeat health care reform not because he feels the present system is superior and in no need of repair but solely because he wants to destroy Barack Obama's presidency.
"If we are able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," DeMint said.
Contrast that with what Hatch said about Kennedy: "He never made his partisanship personal." He knew how to "to get things done even in the most partisan times." "Ted always keeps his word," said McCain. "We disagree on a lot of things. But Ted doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He likes people and he doesn't hold a grudge."
KENNEDY WAS a leader on nearly every issue important to the mainstream Jewish community. He was a strong supporter of Israel, although not in a leadership role or on any of the key committees. Prior to one trip to Israel I went to his home in McLean, Virginia, to brief him and was impressed by how well informed he was and the quality of questions he asked.
He was an early and energetic advocate for Soviet Jews; his advocacy took him from Washington's corridors of power to midnight meetings with refuseniks in their Moscow apartments.
But it was in domestic policy that he excelled. In addition to health care reform, he was a leader on protecting civil rights, civil liberties and religious liberty, fighting against gender discrimination, defending the rights of workers, the disabled and expanding education.
Jewish groups across the political spectrum were generous in their tributes to Kennedy last week. The Orthodox Union called him "a towering figure" who left a "legacy of patriotism, service and dedication" and worked in "partnership" with the group.
That view wasn't shared by some on the far right like the OU's former president Mendy Ganchrow, who blogged on the eve of Kennedy's death, "Rarely in America has a more unworthy person been accorded such deep respect as is regularly heaped upon Kennedy." Ganchrow, a retired proctologist, opposed Kennedy's health care proposals and said instead of "being treated with expensive modalities" the ailing "idiot" senator from "the People's Republic of Massachusetts" should "go into Hospice, take an Asparin [sic] and say his daily prayers."
Ted was the only Kennedy brother to live a full life and die a peaceful death. He achieved what his brothers aspired to - a long record of leadership and a lasting legacy dedicated to bettering the lives of all people. His causes were our causes. This devoted Irish Catholic had a Yiddishe neshama, a Jewish soul.