By Trisha Murakawa
I, like millions of Americans , was glued to the T.V. witnessing the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy last week.
I was struck by his thoughtfulness, the numerous examples of humble and caring actions he took for the benefit of others and the seriousness with which he took his role as a national leader and the “conscience” of the United States Senate as a voice for the unrepresented, the disenfranchised and the politically powerless.
I am now more convinced than ever that Ted Kennedy was a great man and a great American.
It’s true that I did not hold this view over the last several years. At every opportunity given me when his name came up in conversation, I would be quick to mention how he “sold” our community out by allowing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
As the Lion of the Senate as he has constantly been referred, but more significantly, as the moral conscience of the United States Senate for “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” I was outraged that he allowed a so-called civil rights bill to include an exemption that allowed continued discrimination and unfair and shabby treatment for cannery workers in Alaska, the majority of whom are “our people” from our community.
I always felt that Senator Kennedy sold us out in that bill because our community, the Asian and Pacific Islander American community, in the mind of so many, is the least powerful and the least threatening population.
If an exemption that allowed for discrimination and harassment in the workplace were made for workers from another racial group, say African American, Latino, or another religious group, say Catholic, Christian or Jewish, it would be a national story for months. There would be national outrage, riots and civil unrest until the issue was addressed.
I’m sure Senator Kennedy allowed this bill to pass with this exemption because it was politically expedient. Some deal must have been brokered.
In his defense, Senator Kennedy committed to remedy the situation for the only group of workers in the entire nation whose employer would legally be allowed to violate their workplace rights. A few years later, he made good on his commitment because of the leadership of committed members of Congress and the work and effort from our community’s leaders.
But today, I’m certain that very few people remember the Wards Cove exemption in that bill except those who lobbied for legislation to remedy the situation and the legislators involved in the work.
I share that example as a reminder that vigilance must be ongoing and our community must never relent, even as a means for political expediency, but that’s just a digression20from the real topic.
The real topic is what a truly kind and thoughtful patriarch and leader Senator Kennedy was to his family, his friends and his colleagues.
I was moved hearing Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator John Kerry’s remembrances of Senator Kennedy. They shared the fun times they had together, but they both also shared stories of how attentive, truly caring and kind Senator Kennedy was on a personal level to his friends.
My standard stereotype of famous big personality/big persona politicians like Senator Kennedy are typical—ego-driven, self-absorbed, arrogant and aloof. But it seems, none of these words would describe Senator Kennedy.
Now, I’m not an idiot and I know no one would speak ill of the senator at his funeral, but I still believe that he was not stereotypical. Rather, I believe Senator Kennedy was knowingly privileged and powerful and he used his status to effectively advocate for the disenfranchised and tried to live up to his own standards on a larger level to help the poor and the powerless.
Of course, the senator was famous for his personal foibles, but no one is perfect.
He more than made up for his character flaws through the large actions he took that benefited the masses and the small acts of kindness he carried out for his family and friends.
Senator Kennedy, through his career in the United States Senate and through the larger role he played as a leader for equality and justice, gave all of America the big hug we so often needed.
Americans will miss Senator Kennedy’s wisdom and experience in Washington and his leadership on the big issues. The void he leaves as the conscience of the Senate will never be filled.
Trisha Murakawa is a strategic communications and public affairs consultant based in Redondo Beach. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.