HARVARD UNIVERSITY almost never grants honorary degrees outside the spring commencement ceremony. Rare exceptions have included George Washington, Winston Churchill, and Nelson Mandela. Today, such figures will be joined by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, as he receives an honorary degree at a special Harvard convocation. An unadorned litany of Kennedy's achievements shows exactly why this honor is fitting, and why he belongs in such historic company.
An early champion of civil rights, Kennedy made his first mark by opening America's door with the Immigration Act of 1965, to which the Globe's Peter S. Canellos points as legislation that made this the multi-racial nation that could elect Barack Obama. Kennedy quickly emerged as a leading voice against the Vietnam War, which sealed his skepticism toward military adventures. His support of the desegregation of Boston Public Schools in the contentious 1970s made him controversial among his own core constituents. His back-channel contacts with leaders of the Soviet Union helped lay groundwork for détente and arms control, on which he became one of the Senate's leading voices.
When the conservative tide rolled in with Ronald Reagan, Kennedy came into his own as a new kind of opposition leader - a firmly liberal but supremely pragmatic legislator. He turned back Republican assaults on Social Security, legal aid, and voting rights. Prophetic critic of the "jellybean economics" that play out to this day; denouncer of "catsup-is-a-vegetable" stinginess ("The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs"); first supporter of the nuclear freeze movement; wily obstacle in the path of the Reagan wars in Central America; leader of the sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa; derailer-in-chief of the Bork Supreme Court nomination; rare dissenter to what he called "the feel-good invasion" of Panama; clear-eyed critic of the first Gulf War, warning of consequences that, in fact, followed - again and again, history proved a lonely Kennedy to have been right.
But in the early 1990s, an already outstanding legislative record became something else. With Nick Littlefield as staff director, Kennedy's Labor and Human Resources Committee went into overdrive. Establishing unprecedented partnerships with Republican senators like Orrin Hatch, Bob Dole, and Alan Simpson, many of whose constituents loathed Kennedy, he shaped and won congressional approval for dozens of laws that define what is good about America: the Child Care Act, the National Community Services Act, Head Start expansion, the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Excellence in Math and Science Act. Ultimately, Kennedy would be the force behind more landmark legislation, impacting everything from the fight against cancer to fetal tissue research to control of nuclear weapons, than any legislator in US history. Education (from "No Child Left Behind" to college loans to employment training), national service (Americorps), labor (minimum-wage increases, workplace anti-discrimination), foreign policy (his proposals for economic assistance to Northern Ireland led to peace) - and, capping it all, a decades-long dedication to the reform of the nation's healthcare system, the senator's central passion.
Only last week, President Bush signed into law the latest Kennedy accomplishment, the Mental Health Parity Act, which mandates insurance expansion to cover mental health and addiction. Kennedy shaped that law with his son Patrick on the House side, and with Senate Republican Pete V. Dominici, who said, "This has been a labor of love for us." And now, with his longtime ally Tom Daschle tapped to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Kennedy is poised to claim the holy grail of comprehensive health insurance for every American, a capstone, when it comes, of what is already by far the most significant record of legislative achievement in US history.
Not even that fully defines this man's importance to his country. Kennedy's successes in Congress have grounded him, but he has also steadily pointed to a particular hope and a special dream. Heir to a golden legacy, he has proven worthy. But more, he has now established a legacy to which every American is heir, and of which, before the world, every American can be proud. But first, every American is grateful.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.