No Great Speeches series would be complete without a speech from Teddy Kennedy.
Edward M. Kennedy was the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts for almost 47 years. He was called the Liberal Lion of the Senate and when he died in August 2009 we lost a great spokesman for our causes.
As I sifted through the list of his speeches there were many to choose from. Speeches from his heart with his eulogy to his brother Robert F. Kennedy, speeches asking for forgiveness after personal failings, oratory to bring us to our feet cheering for his causes which were and became our causes.
But the speech that connects most forcefully with our current political situation is his speech after a moment of defeat: his address to the Democratic Party Convention in 1980 after his failed attempt to win the nomination.
Speeches can contain words to live by, words that call us to action for an important cause and words that connect to our deepest feelings about fairness and compassion.
Ted Kennedy had lost his bid to be the party’s nominee but not his passion for Democratic Party principles. He spoke to the convention (link includes audio):
My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans, I have come here tonight not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause.
I’m asking you — I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice.
I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work.
Our country was in a recession in 1980 and unemployment was high. Kennedy reminded us of what the Democratic party stood for:
The serious issue before us tonight is the cause for which the Democratic Party has stood in its finest hours, the cause that keeps our Party young and makes it, in the second century of its age, the largest political Party in this republic and the longest lasting political Party on this planet.
Our cause has been, since the days of Thomas Jefferson, the cause of the common man and the common woman.
Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called “the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” On this foundation we have defined our values, refined our policies, and refreshed our faith.
He mocked the Republican party’s nominee, Ronald Reagan, in terms that should resonate with those who see today’s Republican party attempting to rewrite the past also:
The same Republicans who are talking about the crisis of unemployment have nominated a man who once said, and I quote, “Unemployment insurance is a prepaid vacation plan for freeloaders.” And that nominee is no friend of labor.
The same Republicans who are talking about the problems of the inner cities have nominated a man who said, and I quote, “I have included in my morning and evening prayers every day the prayer that the Federal Government not bail out New York.” And that nominee is no friend of this city and our great urban centers across this nation.
The same Republicans who are talking about security for the elderly have nominated a man who said just four years ago that “Participation in social security should be made voluntary.” And that nominee is no friend of the senior citizens of this nation.
The same Republicans who are talking about preserving the environment have nominated a man who last year made the preposterous statement, and I quote, “Eighty percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.” And that nominee is no friend of the environment.
And the same Republicans who are invoking Franklin Roosevelt have nominated a man who said in 1976, and these are his exact words, “Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal.” And that nominee whose name is Ronald Reagan has no right to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The great adventures which our opponents offer is a voyage into the past. Progress is our heritage, not theirs. What is right for us as Democrats is also the right way for Democrats to win.
Those “same Republicans” sound like the “same Republicans” who ran on the Americans for (Rich People’s) Prosperity tea party platform in 2010 and who threaten the future of our country in 2011.
He is 100% certain of who we are:
We are the Party — We are the Party of the New Freedom, the New Deal, and the New Frontier. We have always been the Party of hope. So this year let us offer new hope, new hope to an America uncertain about the present, but unsurpassed in its potential for the future.
To all those who are idle in the cities and industries of America let us provide new hope for the dignity of useful work. Democrats have always believed that a basic civil right of all Americans is that their right to earn their own way. The Party of the people must always be the Party of full employment.
To all those who doubt the future of our economy, let us provide new hope for the reindustrialization of America. And let our vision reach beyond the next election or the next year to a new generation of prosperity. If we could rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II, then surely we can reindustrialize our own nation and revive our inner cities in the 1980’s.
To all those who work hard for a living wage let us provide new hope that their price of their employment shall not be an unsafe workplace and a death at an earlier age.
To all those who inhabit our land from California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf stream waters, let us provide new hope that prosperity shall not be purchased by poisoning the air, the rivers, and the natural resources that are the greatest gift of this continent. We must insist that our children and our grandchildren shall inherit a land which they can truly call America the beautiful.
To all those who see the worth of their work and their savings taken by inflation, let us offer new hope for a stable economy. We must meet the pressures of the present by invoking the full power of government to master increasing prices. In candor, we must say that the Federal budget can be balanced only by policies that bring us to a balanced prosperity of full employment and price restraint.
And to all those overburdened by an unfair tax structure, let us provide new hope for real tax reform. Instead of shutting down classrooms, let us shut off tax shelters. Instead of cutting out school lunches, let us cut off tax subsidies for expensive business lunches that are nothing more than food stamps for the rich.
He concludes with this:
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.
Here is the checklist from Senator Kennedy’s speech the summer of 1980:
1. Full employment
2. American reindustrialization
3. Safe workplaces
4. Environmental protections
5. Stable economy
6. Protection of our social safety nets
As we now know, the conservative winter ushered in with the victory of Ronald Reagon in 1980 froze and rolled back progress.
Now that we are thawing and our progressive spring moves towards our progressive summer, we can pick up where our Progressive fore bearers left off.
Economic justice does not just get lip service from Democrats, it is one of the founding principles of our party.
Let’s join together in solidarity as Democrats by setting aside our differences to gather our forces and push back against privilege and the wrong-headedness of Republican policies: from 1980 and from 2010.
Together we can win economic justice for ourselves and those who come after us.
And create the America that Teddy Kennedy envisioned for us.
Great Speeches is a series on speeches by American politicians.
(A version of this was originally posted on 06/29/2011 at BPI Campus)