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Kennedy Was An American Optimist

WASHINGTON - Nearly 30 years ago, I interviewed Sen. Edward Kennedy for the first time.

I was a young reporter covering George McGovern's last Senate campaign in South Dakota, one McGovern would lose decisively to Republican Jim Abdnor.

Kennedy was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980 against the embattled incumbent, Jimmy Carter. The senator made a campaign stop in a state that had deep connections to the Kennedy family. A key confidant of his brother, Robert Kennedy, was from Sioux Falls: Bill Dougherty. Robert Kennedy learned he had won the California and South Dakota primaries just before he was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.

Back in 1980, Sen. Kennedy's press shop granted me a few minutes with him on his plane before it was to take off from Sioux Falls. We talked for 20 minutes as the national political reporters filed onto the campaign jet, a few of them wisecracking about another stop in Podunk.

Kennedy was exactly the opposite: serious, respectful and solicitous of a young and nervous reporter. Thirty years of experience tells me that most politicians would have called for wheels up after five questions from the rookie. Kennedy waited until I'd asked everything I could think of. He was far more versed in agriculture policy than any senator from Massachusetts ever needed to be.

As I closed my notebook, he asked me - a 26-year-old covering his first real campaign - for my take on Sen. McGovern's chances.

Kennedy lost his nomination fight to Carter that year, and he never ran for president again.

But as I watched the ailing senator speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year, I kept returning to those few minutes on the tarmac in Sioux Falls.

For all of Ted Kennedy's failures (his sorry conduct at Chappaquiddick that cost a young woman her life almost certainly would have ended the public career of anyone other than a Kennedy), the man they called the Lion of the Senate had one deep and abiding trait that is often lost in today's liberalism.

He was an American optimist.

He assumed the best in America, chided us for our shortcomings, and challenged us to meet and overcome them.

He was never mean, never responded in kind when called names, never ridiculed those who disagreed with him as "the tin-foil-hat crowd," as one liberal "commentator" yakked on cable this week.

One of the worst traits shared by the left and right in today's politics is the absolute inability to see the legitimacy of the other side. What Kennedy saw as compromise in nearly 50 years in the Senate is mocked as capitulation by the true believers of 2009.

As liberal as he was, Kennedy's friends included the conservative columnist Cal Thomas and the conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. Some of Kennedy's signature legislation was forged in compromise with conservatives like George W. Bush.

In the hours after Kennedy's death, many plucked a line from the seven-minute Denver speech in which he called health care a "fundamental right and not a privilege." That's the liberal antidote for angry health care town-hall meetings bursting around the country this August.

But another line from Kennedy's '08 speech struck me as more of a legacy.

Chiding those who said Barack Obama was too idealistic, Kennedy said that "an American flag still marks the surface of the moon" as the direct result of his brother, John's, challenge.

"This is what we do," Kennedy said in a raspy voice. "We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again."

We may never again see anything as close to political royalty as the Kennedys were made to be in the last century. But last lion of the Senate? The optimist in Teddy would never believe that.

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