Edward Kennedy was a talismanic figure in American public life: the younger brother of two inspirational leaders who died young, and an embodiment of an epic narrative, the fuck-up youngest son who had greatness thrust upon him and gradually, despite his tragic flaws (including something your parents either could or could never forgive him for), earned it.
This is probably why today, following his death of brain cancer, we're hungry to memorialize the man — but, and perhaps unlike his brothers, Teddy's lasting legacy will actually reside in his tangible political accomplishments.
Tim Noah at Slate does the best job of listing and contextualizing the Senator's accomplishments, which were, on the aggregate and despite his skill at playing politics, fiercely and expansively liberal. Let's start with this list:
In 1965, Kennedy was floor manager for an immigration bill that ended four decades of preferences for Northern Europeans at the expense of Asians and other groups... In 1972, Kennedy helped shepherd Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in education programs and fostered the expansion of athletic programs for women in high schools and colleges. In 1974, Kennedy sponsored the "post-Watergate amendments" to campaign finance law, limiting the size and sources of private contributions to candidates and creating a public financing system for presidential elections. In 1986, Kennedy advanced key amendments to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, guaranteeing continued health coverage to workers after they lost their jobs. In 1990, Kennedy sponsored the Americans With Disabilities Act, which enacted civil rights protections for the handicapped. In 1997, he sponsored the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which extended medical care to families with children that didn't qualify for Medicaid.
The above-linked Times obituary, and Sean Wilentz for The New Republic, delve similarly deeply into the most impressive resume in the modern history of the Senate. Ted Kennedy prevented the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court (though, knowing he would be dismissed as a hypocrite because of his own appetites, he was largely muzzled during the Clarence Thomas debacle), and protected, the Voting Rights Act from Reagan's attempts to relax it — doing so in collaboration with Bob Dole, one of his many friends from the other side of the aisle.
Though his rise to the family Senate seat at the age of 30 was an appalling act of nepotism, Kennedy became a dutiful student of policy, especially healthcare, which occupied much of his time as early as the mid-60s. (He wrote a book, In Critical Condition: The Crisis in America's Health Care, as early as 1972.) Following the collapse of the Clinton healthcare plan in 1994, he worked to enact tangible incremental progress throughout the 90s and the Bush years. Kennedy called healthcare reform "the cause of my life"; his absence during the current debate has been much-lamented, and will only become more so.
Ted Kennedy was a most fortunate son of America's ruling class, and his life's work was devoted to the idea that the American government can and ought to offer all its citizens the protection and opportunities that his own circumstances afforded him. As America continues to debate — noisily, frustratingly, mostly tangentially — the issue closest to his heart, the compassion that guided his thinking seems a principle worth remembering, and repeating.