20090826 kennedy free choice act 23
Sen. Ted Kennedy flanked by, from right, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Rep. George Miller, and Sen. Arlen Spector speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill about the rights of blue-collar workers on April 19, 2005. - 

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Kai Ryssdal: The most famous line from Ted Kennedy's most famous speech came at the end of his concession at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City.

TED KENNEDY: For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Less remembered, but probably more important today, are some of the things Kennedy said earlier in that speech about interest rates, and health care, high inflation and labor.

KENNEDY: Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work. And we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.

Our Washington Bureau Chief John Dimsdale has this look back at Senator Kennedy's economic philosophy.


JOHN DIMSDALE: Ted Kennedy was a man of privilege who dedicated himself to defending opportunities for workers, students and the sick. He was an early supporter of Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the White House.

And today President Obama said Kennedy's ideals are reflected in laws that have helped millions.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: In seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education's promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just. Including myself.

Despite his passion for liberal causes, Kennedy found legislative common ground with the other side. Norman Ornstein is the author of many books about Congress and politics.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: My belief is that historians of the Senate, if you ask them to pick the top five Senators of the 20th century, would almost uniformly include Kennedy on that list.

During 46 years in the Senate, Kennedy influenced a broad range of public policy, from labor and education to health care and the law.

ORNSTEIN: Kennedy in many ways was the intellectual father of the kind of deregulation of the transportation world, for example, that we continue to live with.

In the 1970s, even before Ronald Reagan reached the White House, Kennedy shepherded bills lifting government control over trucking and the airlines. Richard Cohen covered those debates for National Journal.

RICHARD COHEN: There was a lot of opposition. Including from Democrats in Congress who liked the old system, who created and benefited from the old system. But Kennedy was willing to take them on.

And found allies in the GOP to get them passed. Promoting the benefits of competition might seem unusual for a liberal, but biographer Adam Clymer says Kennedy figured less government control would help the little guy.

ADAM CLYMER: He was persuaded that airline deregulation would mean lower fares and competition and more people being able to fly. Flying before deregulation was uncommon. Now everybody flies.

Senator Kennedy believed access to health care is a universal right and his skills have been missed in the current battle over improving the health-care system. Here is Senator John McCain speaking on ABC's "This Week" last Sunday.

JOHN McCAIN: It's huge that he's absent. Not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think that health-care reform might be in a very different place today.

Still, Adam Clymer says the current health-care struggle reflects Ted Kennedy's input.

CLYMER: He pushed Obama very hard to commit himself to universal coverage, which was not, if you remember, Obama's original position in the campaign. Obama's advocacy now is in part from pushing from Kennedy who would always introduce him as saying "with Barack Obama as president we'll have universal health care."

Clymer attributes Kennedy's success to the force of his personality. He took interest in the personal lives of his colleagues, and that compassion drew them into unusual alliances.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.