Following A True Compass

When Someone Had To Take The Lead, Ted Kennedy Was Always There

The first time I met Sen. Ted Kennedy was back in the mid-1970s when I was working for the social justice arm of the United Church of Christ.


About 25 activists were meeting in a Senate conference room to hash out how to proceed on building support for full congressional representation for the District of Columbia. There were numerous squabbles about tactics and timing.


Then Kennedy swept into the room. Kennedy was known as a strong advocate for the District, and within minutes he assessed the situation and knew what to do. He did an astonishing off-the-cuff speech about the injustice of nearly one million people paying taxes and sending their children to war without having voting congressional representatives or senators to represent their interests. After those remarks, the groups started paying attention to the goal, not their institutional differences.


Over the years, in the numerous non-profit groups I worked for, I had many opportunities to work with Kennedy’s staff. They were extraordinary people themselves, who often stayed in their Senate positions for many years. They saw their work as a public service, not just a stepping stone to a slot as a highly paid

K Street


Sometimes they would try to “protect” their boss from taking positions on controversial areas people like me would ask him to become involved with. Frequently, though, their views were ultimately rejected, as the senator would weigh in on why “someone” had to take the lead and that he was that “someone.”


Ted Kennedy was a person with an instinctive sense of what the Constitution means. He came from a radically different background than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both, however, viewed the call for justice at its root not as just a religious matter but a demand to be faithful to the written promises of our founding document, the Constitution, and the wise expansions of rights through the amendment process.


“Equal protection” of the laws meant you treat all people fairly; “no laws” abridging freedom of speech and press meant even objectionable comments were not the subject of government regulation.


We saw this demonstrated in many ways. When Kennedy was not able to be in town the night of Americans United’s 50th anniversary dinner, he insisted on recording a very personal video for us.


“For 50 years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been a skillful, tireless and indispensable ally in the ongoing struggle to protect religious liberty,” Kennedy said. “All Americans are in your debt on this auspicious 50th anniversary celebration.”


Some political figures change their message pretty dramatically depending on whether they are speaking to a friendly or a not-so-friendly audience. Not so with Ted Kennedy. In 1983, he offered to address Jerry Falwell’s LibertyUniversity and was just as clear about the principles that guided him as he was with that Americans United audience. 


Kennedy eloquently observed, “I hope for an America where no president, no public official, and no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt – or religious belief.


“I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly – but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light fires of fear, coercion or angry division,” he added.


“I hope,” he went on, “for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously – but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.” 


At Americans United, we knew we could always count on Ted Kennedy to oppose various schemes giving tax aid to religious schools, school prayer amendments and other threats to the church-state wall. He also helped lead the fight to keep Robert Bork off the Supreme Court.


I am looking forward to reading True Compass, the memoir he penned before he died. I’m sure we’ll learn about his thoughts on all kinds of questions.


But there was a very human side to him as well. In spite of the burdens of leadership on so many issues, the senator never lost touch with the individual people hurting in America.


No book could chronicle every instance of kindness by the senator. But I want to tell just one: I’m writing this just a few days before my son is getting married. Twenty years ago, he had been diagnosed with a rare form of muscle cancer.


Imagine what my wife and I went through. Imagine our feelings of despair. When Kennedy heard about the initial diagnosis, he offered to send my son a note about his own son’s illness and urge him to be strong.


The offer was as unforgettable to me as any policy position he ever took. And when my son made a full recovery, Ted Kennedy couldn’t have been more pleased to hear it. 


That was the Ted Kennedy I knew. That was the Ted Kennedy I will miss. Americans have lost a man the likes of whom we will not see again for a very long time.


Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.