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Editorial Reflections

Health care, education, jobs and fair wages benefit society

A privileged beginning seems an unlikely source for a career devoted to alleviating the consequences of poverty, but Senator Edward Kennedy had a father who emphasized public service and a mother who often repeated the biblical exhortation that reminds us that much is expected from those to whom much has been given.

Until well into adulthood, the senator does not seem to have expected much of himself until he realized he was being a bad role model for the many nieces and nephews who depended on his love and care.  He apologized to the nation for his shortcomings and set to work on what was really important.

Some years ago, I attended a Senate committee hearing on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and Senator Kennedy was a member of the committee.  At that time, the research on SIDS was solid but the syndrome was not well understood by the public, and parents who woke up one morning to find their baby dead sometimes found themselves accused of either extreme neglect or deliberately killing the baby.  The nation needed to be educated on the subject.

Senate hearings are often frustrating to watch.  Senators may appear inattentive as they slouch in their seats.  Aides whisper messages to them.  When a vote is going on, they take turns leaving for the floor of the Senate, or the hearings take a recess for the vote.  Questions addressed to witnesses are often preceded by long, self-serving preliminary remarks.

Senator Kennedy was kind to the person he questioned, and his inquiry was to the point.
There was nationwide education on SIDS soon after: for medical personnel, for law enforcement and for the public.

During his 46 years in the Senate, Senator Kennedy wrote, co-wrote or sponsored more than 2,500 pieces of legislation.  Most of them related to the problems of poverty: the minimum wage, health care, nutrition, education, employment and workplace problems.

According to those who worked with him or watched him in action, developing long term relationships was a key factor in his success.  He seems to have had all the social skills of a youngest child:  he listened well, and he cared deeply about finding common ground.  In working to pass legislation, he did not take the discussion to a personal level and demonize opponents of the bill.

It was widely known that he was a devout Catholic.  However, not much was usually said beyond that.

Pat Oliphant, a journalist now retired from the Boston Globe, tells of a conversation after they had gone to mass in the middle of the week.  They were in the middle of the senator’s nationwide trip around the nation to give speeches and interviews on the subject of poverty.  Back in the car, Pat asked him where he got his deep feelings about poverty.  The senator looked at him in surprise and asked, “Have you never read the New Testament?”

He seems to have thoroughly absorbed the teachings of his church on peace and justice, but he didn’t proselytize.  In some of his impassioned speeches he might be described as preaching, however.
The message was consistent through the years: health care and education profit our economy.

A healthy work force takes fewer sick days and is more productive.  Safety measures in the workplace result in fewer injuries and lost days and higher productivity.

Education at all levels works similarly.  Encourage high school dropouts to earn a GED.  They are then able to sign up for programs that will help them qualify for skilled jobs.  Better jobs yield better income for workers and increase our country’s productivity.

Senator Kennedy lived a life informed by his faith, looking beyond himself to the general welfare of society, instead of convincing people that what they really needed was to enlarge and preserve the privileges of a select few.

Nancy Minard - editorial team