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The Lion of the Senate

Conventional wisdom says you must be either an advocate or a bridge-builder, but never both. Ted Kennedy, once again, proves the conventional wisdom wrong.
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They call him a lion. John McCain, on Tuesday, called him the "last lion in the Senate … because he remains the single most effective member of the Senate." I've always liked lions. I have a beautiful painting of a South African lion on the wall of our living room at home. My boys think it is Aslan, the lion of Narnia, of whom Mr. Beaver said, "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."

The nation got a shock this week. Edward Kennedy, the lion who has been in the U.S. Senate for nearly 50 years, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. I know Ted Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, and have enjoyed personal conversations with them on a number of occasions over a wide range of issues, including the application of Christian faith to public life. I've found them both to be serious Catholics. And I have worked with Sen. Kennedy on a variety of issues, including legislation for a long-delayed increase in the minimum wage and for comprehensive immigration reform.

When it comes to fighting for economic justice, civil rights, health care, and education, and to opposing unjust and mistaken wars, there has been no greater champion in the Senate, no stronger lion than Teddy Kennedy, as his friends like to call him. And what has been most impressive and inspiring during these last few days since the Massachusetts senator was stricken with seizures is hearing how many friends he really has -- on both sides of the aisle. Despite being the archetypal "liberal" in the U.S. Senate, and the favorite whipping boy and consistent poster child for the right-wing ditto heads of talk radio and the egomaniacs of Fox News, the outpouring of respect and affection for Ted Kennedy from his colleagues in the Senate, including Republicans, has been just amazing.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky., Republican leader), said: "Sen. Kennedy enjoys great respect and admiration on this side of the aisle. He is indeed one of the most important figures to ever serve in this body in our history."

Conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has become a close friend of Kennedy, said: "He's like a brother to me. I love him. I love the Kennedy family. He's given so much to the country, and he has one of the greatest senses of humor of anyone I've known in my life. You can't help but like him if you get to know him."

This genuine and generous outpouring of love and concern for Sen. Kennedy proves a very important thing. It shows that one can be an advocate, a passionate and relentless champion for clear and controversial causes and yet still be a bridge-builder, a reconciler, and a seeker of common ground. The conventional wisdom says you must be one or the other, an advocate or a bridge-builder, but never both. Ted Kennedy, once again, proves the conventional wisdom wrong. It is because he is a lawmaker who genuinely wants to get things done, to find real and concrete solutions -- especially for people who really need them. Kennedy is known as a senator who truly wants to be effective and not just right, as so many others, on both sides of the aisle, are too often content to be.

As a Wall Street Journal story said:

Long known as a liberal lion, partisan warrior and scion of a Democratic family dynasty, Sen. Kennedy has, in the gridlocked environment of recent years, played a role as a key deal maker in nearly all significant domestic policy achievements. Many of the most important domestic milestones of the Bush years … could not have happened without Sen. Kennedy's role as finder of common ground between the two parties.

Ted Kennedy represents a tradition of public service almost unparalleled in American political history. Three of his brothers literally gave their lives in service to their country and the Kennedy family has consistently shown how "the haves" can decide to use their wealth and power to help change the world for the sake of the "have-nots." At 77, his colleagues will tell you that nobody works harder, day in and day out, on the nuts of bolts of lawmaking than Sen. Kennedy, instead of retiring to sail off to his beloved .

On a more personal note, I have met several of the Kennedy children, nephews, nieces, and cousins. Guess who always calls each one on their birthdays -- and often in-between. The youngest of the Kennedy brothers has become the patriarch of the family now, the lion who takes care of all the cubs. Hearing that impressed me as a father and an uncle myself as to the "family values" of one of the most public figures in American political life.

So pray for Ted Kennedy, Vicki Kennedy, and a family that has both given and suffered so much, as more tests, diagnosis, and critical treatment decisions lie ahead. And whatever your political views, thank God for a very human public servant who has focused his entire political career on those whom Jesus called "the least of these" and who once told me one of his favorite biblical texts comes from the book of James, who reminds us all that "faith without works is dead."

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at

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