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Remarks on Senator Edward Moore Kennedy

Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

“I am a part of all that I have met.”

The line comes from Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem the Honorable Edward Moore Kennedy has quoted on memorable occasions in the past.

“I am a part of all that I have met.”

It’s hard to think of a public figure who, over nearly half a century, has been more a part of all that he has met. Think of all that he has met, all he has experienced, all he has fought for since he was first elected to serve in the United States Senate in 1962. Through nine – soon to be ten – presidents, Senator Kennedy has worked tirelessly on behalf of society’s most vulnerable members. The poor. The unemployed. The disabled. The elderly. The seriously ill. Veterans wounded in battle. Newcomers from foreign lands. Men and women facing bias in housing, in employment. Children deprived of the chance for a decent start in life.

He has met them by the thousands. And he has made himself a part of their struggles, and their hopes for a better life.

“The poor may be out of political fashion,” he said nearly three decades ago, “but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.”

Edward Kennedy has made these dreams his own. Pressing his own party to support one of his many efforts to increase the minimum wage, he put it simply, “With some of these issues, you believe in them and feel them, and you ought to fight for them.”

And fought he has. For decades he has worked with passion and compassion to expand access to health care for all Americans. People between jobs. People with preexisting medical conditions. People who lack the means to pay for expensive prescription drugs. People suffering from mental illness. Children with special needs. Children without access to basic nutrition or essential vaccines. All of them – many millions of them – are better off because of his unrelenting commitment to their well-being.

And he’s not stopping now. Senator Kennedy has returned to Washington this fall to fight for the cause of his life – medical coverage for every American.

As in all things, he has taken up this cause not as an abstract matter of policy, but as a deeply felt personal commitment. “The point,” he has said, “is to have some positive impact on people’s lives. The danger as a legislator is that you get involved with just passing the bill. You can lose the context of what passing the bill means, and then you’re just shuffling papers, and you lose that emotional contact. Maybe some people could do it. I think I’d run dry pretty quick.”

With forty-six years and counting he has done anything but run dry. And the people he has touched extend across our state, our nation and around the globe.

He has helped shape debate on the international challenges and conflicts of our age. The Cold War and nuclear arms control. Vietnam and the plight of its refugees. South Africa and the injustice of apartheid. Northern Ireland and the quest for peace. 9/11 and the fight against terror. And in his role as a leading and principled critic of the war in Iraq and in his deep concern for those displaced by the conflict.

And there is of course much more. His leadership on labor and employment. His work on energy and the environment. His efforts on behalf of the judiciary and of civil rights.

Edward Kennedy delivered his first major speech in the Senate on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he acted as a leader in the passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year. Nearly a half century later, he serves as key Senate sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 2008. He has been a voice of conscience and commitment and a model of effectiveness in this most central transformation of American life: realizing the promise of opportunity and equality for all.

But perhaps his most legendary achievement occurred on a snowy day, fifty-three Novembers ago, when – as a not especially fleet-footed but exceptionally sure-handed wide receiver – he scored the Crimson’s only touchdown in the Harvard-Yale game of 1955.

Glance at the Senator’s official website and you’ll see a crisp biographical sketch. The first four paragraphs matter-of-factly recite some of his career milestones. The other three paragraphs evoke the football career that might have been: when, still in his senior year, he received an overture from the soon-to-be-mighty Green Bay Packers. Fortunately for all of us not from Wisconsin, he turned them down. He said he intended, instead, to “go into another contact sport: politics.”

His decision to shelve his shoulder pads in favor of the family business has turned out to be especially consequential for all of us who make our lives in the world of education. President Kennedy once declared that “the human mind is our fundamental resource.” And education is our fundamental means to convert that resource to its highest and best use. Edward Kennedy’s Senate career has long exemplified that truth. He has played a critical role in the effort to reform the nation’s public schools. And the progress of early childhood education in America owes no small debt to Senator Kennedy’s leadership, from the earliest days of Head Start. Famous for his special magic with children, Senator Kennedy has for years visited an elementary school in Washington to read once a week in the classroom. Particularly noteworthy, I gather, is his virtuoso rendition of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

And no United States Senator has committed more of his time, his energy, and his wisdom to the advancement of American higher education. Thanks to him, students across the economic spectrum have opportunity to pursue their ambitions. When, in the mid-nineties, the majority in Congress threatened to cut federal student aid, bus loads of students from Massachusetts magically appeared in the hearing room on Capitol Hill to stare down those poised to support what Senator Kennedy described as a “budget that Marie Antoinette would love – let them eat cake.” Needless to say, funding for student aid was restored.

Thanks to him, and his unflagging support for research, scholars, especially biomedical scientists, have greater opportunity to discover new knowledge – knowledge with the potential to improve the human condition. American colleges and universities, in their long history, have had few more dedicated friends.

Through all this, he has earned a reputation, on both sides of the aisle, as one of the ablest, most energetic, most influential, most broad-gauged, most admired members of the United States Senate. He advocates his beliefs with compelling force. And yet he shapes consensus with consummate skill. He is a fierce fighter, but an even fiercer friend. He pursues his causes with deadly seriousness, but also with exuberance and lively wit. He is a national leader, but a local servant. He belongs to all of us – to his family, who rely on his exceptionally broad shoulders and caring spirit; to his beloved Vicki, his partner and anchor these past sixteen years; to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which he has served with extraordinary attentiveness and skill; to the nation and to the world.

There are abundant examples of legislation with titles that embody his successful bipartisanship: the numerous Kennedy-Hatch bills represent but one manifestation of effective aisle-crossing alliances. And in a 2003 tribute to his capacity to transcend the partisan divide, he was honored with the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service.

It says something about him that this year’s Republican nominee for President has called him, simply, “the single most effective member of the [United States] Senate.”

His biographer took it a step further: “He deserves recognition not just as the leading Senator of our time, but as one of the greats in its history.”

Or perhaps the Senator said it best himself in words he has used to describe his dog – who accompanies him to work on Capitol Hill every day: “he runs like a champ and never gives up.”

There is only one school within Harvard University named for someone other than John Harvard. That school is named for John Kennedy. The Kennedy School is dedicated to the ideal, and the practice, of public service. It draws its essence from the conviction that if we are willing to see beyond ourselves and to invest in the common good, we can create a more humane and enlightened world.

The Kennedy School’s home was dedicated in 1978. You will have no doubt who served as the featured speaker. He took the occasion to invoke President Kennedy’s understanding of “the overwhelming need for greater talent and ability in public service.”

“More than any other public figure in our recent history,” the Senator said of his brother, “he believed in the power of individual citizens to make a difference, to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. He understood the awesome power of intelligence married to commitment, the irresistible force of an idea in the mind of a man or woman educated to serve the public. – His greatest gift was the ability to reach the hearts of others, to plant a seed of hope in barren lives, to nurture new ideas in fertile minds, to inspire the young to devote a portion of their lives to the well-being of their own communities and lift up others less fortunate than themselves.”

What Edward Kennedy said of his brother thirty years ago, we see and we celebrate in his own extraordinary career.

We gather at what feels to be a weighty moment in the history of our nation and the world – a moment fraught with economic uncertainty and the specter of conflicts yet unresolved. At the same time, we face a historic transition in our nation’s leadership, with the election of a president who, a century before his birth, would not have been granted the right to vote or even accorded the status of citizen.

At such a moment, the call to public service sounds with a special resonance. We all confront the question of how we can contribute to improving not only our own lives, but the lives of others. We all have the opportunity to plant new seeds of hope and to nurture new ideas in fertile minds. Together, we are challenged to consider how we can make ourselves more a part of all that we have met – and all that we are still to meet.

As we do, we take profound and continuing inspiration from the vision, the reason, and the courage of the man who, even two decades ago, was recognized by my predecessor Derek Bok as “Harvard’s most impressive living embodiment of lifelong dedication to public service”; the man who will never let us forget that “the cause endures, the hope still lives.” The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy.

Before I present him with his diploma, let me read the citation accompanying his degree:

Resolute in pursuit of opportunity for all,
dauntless in sailing against the wind,
a statesman for all seasons with a singular devotion
to country, commonwealth, and the common good.

By virtue of the authority delegated to me by the governing boards, I confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on the senior United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Edward Moore Kennedy.

– Drew Gilpin Faust