Thursday, September 10, 2009
Mr. President, I rise today to remember and honor our colleague Senator Edward Kennedy. I first had the pleasure of hearing Senator Kennedy speak in 1976. I wanted to come out to Washington, DC, to see how our Nation operates. I had the great privilege of serving as an intern for a Senator from my home State, Senator Hatfield. My father had always talked about Senator Kennedy as someone who spoke for the disenfranchised, someone who spoke for the dispossessed, someone who cared about the working man.
So I was looking forward to possibly meeting him or at least hearing him, and lo and behold, I found out that he was scheduled to speak as part of a series of lectures to the interns that summer. So I made sure to get there early, and what followed was exactly the type of address you might anticipate–a roaring voice, a passionate spirit, a principled presentation of the challenges we face to make our society better. I walked out of that lecture and thought: thank goodness–thank goodness–we have leaders like Senator Kennedy fighting for the working people, the challenged, the dispossessed in our society.
Through that summer, each time I heard Senator Kennedy was on the Senate floor I tried to slip over and go up to the staff section so I could sit in and see a little bit of the lion of the Senate in action. Well through that time I never anticipated that I would have a chance to come back and serve in the Senate with Senator Kennedy. But 33 years later, this last January, when I was sworn in, that unanticipated, miraculous event of serving with him occurred.
I wanted to talk to him about the possibility of joining his Health, Education, and Labor Committee–a committee where so many battles for working Americans, so many battles for the disenfranchised Americans are waged. And so with some trepidation I approached him on the Senate floor to speak with him and asked if he thought I might be able to serve on that committee, if he might whisper in the ear of our esteemed majority leader in that regard, if he thought I might serve well. It was with some pleasure that weeks later I had a message on my phone in which he went on at some length welcoming me to that committee. That was the first committee to which I received an assignment here, and I couldn’t have been more excited and more pleased.
I didn’t have a chance to have a lot of conversations with Senator Kennedy. I was very struck when a bit more than a month ago his staff contacted me and said, in conversation with Senator Kennedy, they were wondering if I might like to carry on the torch on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a civil rights measure he cared a great deal about. They were asking me because it was a battle I had waged in the Oregon Legislature. It had been a hard battle, fought over a number of years, and a battle we had won.
I was more than excited, more than honored to help carry the torch on such an important civil rights measure, and I hope I will be able to do that in a way he would have been satisfied and pleased.
The Senator from New York, Senator Schumer, talked about the many conversations that took place in Senator Kennedy’s hideaway with freshmen Senators and the stories that were passed on. I didn’t get to share much in those types of conversations, but as we were working on health care, Senator Kennedy invited a group of us to his hideaway to brainstorm. Through the course of about 2 hours we went through many of the features and many of the challenges and how we might be able to go forward and finally realize that dream of affordable, accessible health care for every single American.
When the meeting concluded, I had a chance to speak with Senator Kennedy about the picture he had on his wall of his beautiful yacht – the Maya. Senator Kennedy and I both have a passion for sailing. It connected us across the generation, it connected us from the west coast to the east coast, it connected us between the son of a millwright and the son of a U.S. ambassador. It was magic to see the twinkle in his eye as he started to talk of his love of sailing and some of the adventures he had on various boats over time and with family.
I asked him if he was familiar with one of my favorite stories–an autobiography written by CAPT Joshua Slocum. Joshua Slocum had been raised in a large family and, to my recollection, a family of no great means. He had gone to sea when he was a young boy–as a cabin boy or a deckhand–and he learned to sail the tall sheets. Over time he advanced through the ranks until eventually he was the captain of a merchant tall-masted ship. He had amassed some considerable amount of investment and value and loaned to share that ship. When the ship went down, he lost everything. He saved his life, but he lost all of his possessions.
He was up in New England wrestling with how to overcome this tragedy and what to do with his life, and Captain Slocum had a colonel of an idea. He was offered the gift of a ship. Not really a ship, a modest boat between 20 and 30 feet long, single-masted. He later overhauled it and added an after-mast. But he thought: I can rebuild this ship. He says he rebuilt it, in his story, Captain Slocum. He rebuilt it basically in all but the name. The Spray stayed from the beginning to the end and set the tradition. He rebuilt it and went to sea to fish. But it wasn’t to his liking much, and so Captain Slocum had an idea that he was going to perhaps sail around the world.
He thought: Why not just sail right out across the Atlantic? It was a revolutionary idea because no one had ever tried to sail around the world by themselves, just a single person. But he set off and he went to Europe.
I tell you this story at some length because Senator Kennedy knew this story well, and we enjoyed sharing pieces of it back and forth.
He had gone forth in 1895 and taken 3 years to circumnavigate the globe and came back to New England 3 years later, in 1898. So this was well more than a century ago, and people around the world were astounded to see him sail into a harbor all by himself having crossed the broad expanse of an ocean.
In some ways, the life of Captain Slocum represents a version of the life of Senator Kennedy–someone who faced great adversity, who faced great tragedy, but looked at all of it and said: I am going to go forward. I am going to go forward and do something bold, something important. For Senator Kennedy, it wasn’t literally sailing around the world but it was sailing through a host of major issues that affect virtually every facet of our lives–certainly the issue of public service, the National Service Act, the issue of mental health and the issue of health care and the issue of education.
Others who have served with him have spoken in far greater detail and more eloquently than I ever could, but I just want to say to Senator Kennedy: Thank you for your life of service. Thank you for overcoming adversity to undertake a bold journey, a journey that has touched every one of our lives.
Thank you for reaching out to converse with this son of a mill worker from Oregon who felt so privileged to be on the floor of the Senate and to have had just a few months with this master of the Senate and I will hopefully carry forward some of the passion and the principle that he so embodied forward.