Teddy's courage and me

Teddy Kennedy died this week.

I never met the man personally, but he had a profound impact on my life. It was not just his work on health care, education, civil rights and against apartheid that affected generations of immigrant and American born, including me and my family. It was his courage to stand up against the tide; to take an unpopular position on principle.

His stand against the war in Iraq exemplified this.

Beginning in 2001, I made frequent trips to Washington D.C. to influence the softwood lumber bi-lateral talks which were driving forest policy changes in BC.  On these trips my colleagues and I met often with White House staff, Senators, Congressman and the staff of various congressional committees.

The turn of the century was an eerie time in the United States; the Bush Administration was manipulating the country into the war in Iraq and dissent was considered unpatriotic. History has shown that under the Bush II, White House facts become fungible and ideology drove policy.

In October 2002, I was walking the halls of the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings on the day that the Senate voted to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq.

It was a surreal experience. The nationalist frenzy was palpable in the halls of these formidable buildings.

It reminded me of old news real footage of 1930’s Germany. All that was missing were goose-stepping soldiers and the salutes.

Most Senators seemed to be trying to outdo one another for who could display the largest flag in their office. Some were even handing out little cheesy paper US flags to anyone entering their offices. They reminded me of the umbrellas in tropical drinks.

The congressional staff we were meeting with were glued to C-SPAN watching the various speeches from the floor and gossiping about the real politique happening behind the scenes. Normally, I would have been intrigued by this, but we attempted to keep focused on the task at hand: explaining how BC forest policy subsidizes Canadian logging companies. It wasn’t easy.

It was hard to ignore that history was being made. Coming from Canada, the disjunction between the rhetoric and reality was hard to ignore. Judging from the words spoken on the Senate floor one would have thought that Iraqi terrorists were massing at the borders and an attack was eminent.

The scary thing was it seemed many of these prominent staff and politicians believed it. Their behavior and their passion were almost cult-like.

My colleagues and I joked that perhaps we should make everyone sit down and watch a week of CBC’s The National broadcasts to get some perspective.

While we were moving in and out of the congressional offices we heard scary (and in retrospect ridiculously inaccurate) words as the rooster-like Senators pumped themselves up on the Senate floor.   There were few voices of reason.

It was particularly frightening that many of the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth were so out of touch with reality, yet so vehement in their beliefs. It was mob-think personified and we had up-close-and-personal orchestra seats.

I remember thinking that if these kinds of distortions could force what appeared to be an inevitable march to war, then the challenges facing humanity may be insurmountable. It was depressing.

When the war frenzy appeared to be at its peak, Teddy Kennedy stepped to the podium. Per
haps other Senators had spoken out before him, but I didn’t see them.

As he spoke I felt my heart race, my pulse quicken. He stood up and despite the overwhelming momentum for war, he said “No.” I don’t remember the exact words that followed, but in essence he said, this was the wrong war at the wrong time. He was in the minority and he knew it.

Being a vocal dissenter in the frenzied climate of Washington then had consequences. At that moment George W. Bush was the biggest, meanest dude in Washington and it was totally crazy (and politically dangerous) to say that Bubba from Crawford might perhaps be totally and completely wrong about everything. But Teddy said it anyway.

The whispers we heard from the staffers that day was that Kennedy was an out of touch liberal posturing for his intellectual Massachusetts constituency. Hindsight has proven otherwise.

History not only exonerated Kennedy’s position that day, but it is beginning to recognize his courage.

Kennedy later called his October 2002 “No” vote against the Iraq War the best vote he ever cast in 44 years in the Senate.

It is ironic and somewhat sad that Teddy died now, just when the health care debate is at its peak. The current industry-fed frenzy reminds me of the buildup to the war. And once again Americans need courageous dissenters like Teddy.

While I didn’t agree with Teddy on many issues, I respected him and his courage. He carried the universal health care torch for decades, often alone in a town awash with pharmaceutical-health insurance money. 

Watching the insane distortions about universal health care and the Canadian system by Republicans and the pharmaceutical-health insurance lobby that are now saturating the American airwaves, I can’t help but be reminded of those days in Washington. I can’t help but wonder how it might be different if Teddy was at full strength.

We’ll never know. All we can hope for is that his death, and career, gives other politicians the inspiration to stand strong on principal and do the right thing. I wish we had more like him here in BC and in Canada. Given the enormous challenges we face in reconciling Crown and First Nations title and in moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy, we could use more like him.

While it may have been his name and family connection that gave him a head start, in his marathon career it was his hard work, skill and courage that made him unique.

I’ll miss Senator Ted Kennedy.

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