More than anyone else who comes to mind in American public life, Edward M. Kennedy ascended from reprobate to icon, from an object of criticism, even ridicule, to statesman. He made many lasting marks on our policies and politics and just about everyone came to admire and like him. Generations of devoted and able staffers. Fellow Senators and Presidents of both parties. (This list could be extended for miles.) Many tributes and accolades will pour forth in the hours to come. I simply want to recall one episode from 1988.
He was a veteran Senator, a powerhouse in education policy (and many other fields), and pretty much in charge of what was then the latest reauthorization of E.S.E.A. (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). I worked in Ronald Reagan’s education department. Most of our policy proposals found little traction with EMK and his colleagues on the Hill. But the time had come to reinvent the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and Kennedy (and his able staff) understood this. Though the specific proposals to reshape NAEP into approximately its present-day form (with independent governance, state-level data reporting, etc.) emerged from a Bill Bennett-appointed panel—chaired, as it happens, by then Governor, now Senator, Lamar Alexander—and from the Reagan team, Ted Kennedy improved and breathed legislative life into them. Not just in the Senate. He persevered through conference with a less visionary House. And it came to pass. America is the better for it. That’s one small example of his enormous legacy. He’ll be deeply missed. He already is.