Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy, who died on August 25, 2009 of brain cancer, was known as the liberal lion of the Senate. He certainly was a lion, because he roared with passion when defending legislation he believed was important. And his roars were substantial, since he was a big man, big and strong enough to have been recruited by the Green Bay Packers football team in 1955.
The lion certainly was a liberal. As Bruce B. Brugmann wrote in a San Francisco Bay Guardian blog, "he was the most liberal of the Kennedys and he never backed down from calling himself a liberal . . .", which leads to the question "What exactly is a liberal?"
According to Dictionary.com, a liberal person is someone who supports progressive change; who supports personal freedom, especially in terms of civil liberties and private beliefs; who is tolerant and accepting of others; and who is open-minded and generous.
Applying that definition to a legislator, a liberal lawmaker would be one who writes and votes for laws that advance economic opportunities for the poor, welcome immigrants, allow citizens to live their lives as they choose if they are not hurting others, and bring equality to areas where it does not exist.
That certainly was Ted Kennedy.
His brother, John F. Kennedy, gave his own definition of the word liberal when he accepted the nomination for president from the New York Liberal Party in 1960. He said in his acceptance speech, "liberalism is not so much a party creed . . . as it is . . . a faith in man's ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase . . . the amount of justice . . . which all human life deserves."
And that leads us again to Ted Kennedy. In the July 27, 2009 issue of Newsweek magazine, the dying senator placed his passion for health care reform within the context of his own experience. He wrote about his cancer and his children's battles with illness and concluded that "My family has had the care it needed. Other families have not, simply because they could not afford it."
Later in the article, Ted Kennedy reiterated this simple fact -- which is what lies beneath all the debate, all the vitriol, and all the separation we have been seeing in the public arena during this fateful month of August 2009. He wrote, "My wife, Vicki, and I have worried about many things, but not whether we could afford my care and treatment." And, as a liberal, his goal was to relieve others of that worry -- and to increase the amount of justice in the country he loved.
As Ben Adler wrote in the June 2009 issue of The Progressive magazine, Democrats should "embrace the label, the intellectual tradition, and the touchstone programs of liberalism." In other words, embrace your inner Ted Kennedy. Liberal is not a bad word. It only became one when liberals -- except Ted Kennedy -- stopped defending it.