Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kennedy's cause now Obama's crusade

By DeWayne Wickham

Shortly after I heard Ted Kennedy had lost his fight with brain cancer, I called Mary Frances Berry, a human rights activist and former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to get her sense of this great loss.

Berry and the Massachusetts senator waged a lot of battles together over the years. They fought for gender equity for women, voting rights for minorities, and a quality education for disadvantaged schoolchildren. So when I asked Berry for her most compelling memory of the liberal Democrat who spent nearly half a century in the Senate, I was surprised she didn't mention any of these things.

Instead, she recalled the "gun versus butter" fight Kennedy waged -- and lost -- with his own party in 1978. In December that year, he had a largely forgotten showdown with Jimmy Carter, the political moderate who won the presidency in 1976 with Kennedy's help. Their clash wasn't so much a battle of political ideology as a fight over fiscal priorities.

These differences played out at the Democratic Party's midterm conference in Memphis, Tenn. A raucous gathering of party insiders assembled to assess the course that Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, had taken in the first two years of Carter's presidency and, if necessary, plot a mid-course correction.

That year, with inflation soaring, Carter sent Congress a budget that proposed a hefty increase in defense spending and cuts in domestic programs. Kennedy and Berry, who ran federal education programs at the time, objected.

"Sometimes a party must sail against the wind," Kennedy told Democrats at the 1978 conference. "We cannot heed the call of those who say it is time to furl the sail. We know that some things in America today are wrong. It is wrong that prices are rising as rapidly as they are. But it is also wrong that millions of our fellow citizens are out of work. It is wrong that cities are struggling against decay. It is wrong that women and minorities are denied their equal rights. And it is wrong that millions who are sick cannot afford the care they need."

The centerpiece of Kennedy's push for more domestic spending was his insistence that Carter fulfill the Democratic Party's pledge to create a national health insurance plan. Citing budget constraints, Carter wanted to take a go-slow approach. Kennedy felt a greater sense of urgency.

"One of the most shameful things about modern America is that in our unbelievably rich land, the quality of health care available to many of our people is unbelievably poor and the cost is unbelievably high," Kennedy said. "That is why national health insurance is the great unfinished business on the agenda of the Democratic Party."

Kennedy won over his audience that day -- his speech was repeatedly interrupted with standing ovations -- but he lost his fight with Carter. Still, he never gave up.

In January 2008, nearly three decades later, Kennedy called President Barack Obama to say he would endorse the Illinois senator's campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. His support came with one condition: He wanted Obama to promise to push for universal health care if he made it into the White House. Obama agreed.

"This is the cause of my life," Kennedy said later of his desire to see all Americans insured.

What's left of his crusade now languishes in Congress, caught up in another debate over spending priorities. Kennedy's cause now depends on Obama's ability to make good on his promise.

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