Yesterday, in a statement on his death, President Barack Obama called Sen. Ted Kennedy "not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy." Vice President Joe Biden said Kennedy "had so many of his... foes embracing him, because they know he made them bigger, he made them more graceful by the way in which he conducted himself." The Lion of the Senate was gone.
It was no surprise. Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer early this year. More recently, we were reminded of his illness when he wrote a letter to the Governor and Legislature of Massachusetts regarding his quick replacement. He knew he didn't have long.
But I've always believed that the world we live in is an ongoing project. As a result, we'll all leave something unfinished. It's human nature to build and to progress and one person's contributions to that project are part of the work of us all. If the task is necessary, it won't go unfinished for long -- you don't leave a house half-built because the carpenter died. Kennedy's necessary work will go on, it won't remain incomplete.
Along those lines, Sen. Robert Byrd is now calling for Kennedy's own work -- unfinished but still underway -- to become his memorial.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the only senator to have served longer than the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), mourned his friend Wednesday, saying his "heart and soul weeps."
Byrd said he hoped healthcare reform legislation in the Senate would be renamed in memoriam of Kennedy.
"I had hoped and prayed that this day would never come," Byrd said in a statement. "My heart and soul weeps at the lost of my best friend in the Senate, my beloved friend, Ted Kennedy."
Byrd's wistful statement focused on the work accomplished with Kennedy during decades together in the Senate, and called on the healthcare bill before Congress to be renamed in honor of Kennedy.
"In his honor and as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on health care reform which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name for his commitment to insuring the health of every American," he said.
A good idea. In fact, a damned good idea. Kennedy once called fixing our broken system of healthcare delivery "the cause of my life." The word "memorial" refers to remembrance of the lost, not to the mourning of that loss. His life's cause should be his remembrance. If he'd wanted a big statue, he'd have bought one.
Over at Huffington Post, political writer Bob Cesca echoes Sen. Byrd's call -- healthcare reform in Kennedy's memory. But he adds one important caveat:
If they're going to name the final healthcare reform bill after Senator Kennedy, we ought to be demanding with voices as powerful and booming as the late senator's...
The bill must not suck.
Now there's an idea. Not just a bill, but a good bill. The Sen. Edward Kennedy Memorial Bandaid would be an insult. We need a good bill, with universal coverage, and a strong public option.
And those goals are nowhere near as controversial as shrieking town hall nuts would have you believe. The loudest voice doesn't always represent the majority, but the most strident minority. A new poll from Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates shows that 86% believe that everyone should have access to health insurance, regardless of their health history (i.e., no one turned down for "pre-existing conditions") and 79% believe that people should be able to buy into a "federal government health insurance option."
The problem is that about a quarter of the population is poorly informed. "[A]bout one-fourth of those polled believe the 'public option' is a national health care system, similar to the one in Great Britain," reports the Denver Post. And that bad information is the result of a deliberate campaign to misinform the public, says one of those behind the poll.
"These two words [public option] have become radioactive, they have been swift-boated," said William Mann, senior vice president of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates. "There is a real misunderstanding."
"There is so much more educating that needs to be done across the board on various health care reform options," agrees Morie Smile of the AARP. "Nobody seems to have a firm grasp on the vocabulary. It's either a sacred cow or a punching bag."
So the work, still unfinished, begins in educating the public and countering the lies. The people want this -- even if they're not exactly clear on the nomenclature. The cry of "No reform, ever!" is a minority position, as loud as that cry is. And many of those rallying to that cry really mean "Not this reform" -- when they completely misunderstand what this reform is.
The question isn't whether we should do this, it's not even whether we can do this. The question is how we do this, because it's necessary that we do. Too many people understand the problem, too many people suffer under our present system, and too many people pay too much for too little.
This is too important to allow a handful of angry stooges and corporate puppets to derail. The cause of Ted Kennedy's life should become the cause of our own. In one sense, it already is, because so many of our lives would be improved or even saved by it. But the work isn't finished. The work is never finished.
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