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Speech invokes letter from Kennedy

Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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Senator Edward M. Kennedy didn’t live to see a universal health care bill pass in Washington.

But when President Obama pleaded with Congress last night to push ahead with the legislation, he called on Kennedy’s legacy as the late senator’s widow, children, and two grandchildren watched from the House gallery.

Obama said he received a letter recently from Kennedy that was dated May 12 and that was to be delivered upon his death.

In it, Kennedy “expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform - ‘that great unfinished business of our society,’ would finally pass,’’ Obama said. “ ‘What we face,’ he wrote, ‘is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.’

“I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days - the character of our country,’’ Obama told the lawmakers and millions of TV viewers.

He said while Kennedy’s critics saw his passion for health care as “nothing more than a passion for big government,’’ those who worked with Kennedy - Democrats and Republicans - knew it was compassion.

“Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience,’’ Obama said. “It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick; and he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent - there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.’’

Then appealing for bipartisanship on health care, Obama said, “That large-heartedness - that concern and regard for the plight of others - is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character.’’

Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod told the Globe that Victoria Reggie Kennedy called to say the senator had written the letter in May and wanted it delivered to Obama after his death.

“The president read it, and it became the basis of the closing’’ section of the speech that Obama wrote himself in longhand, Axelrod said in a brief interview. “It was something that moved him a lot.’’

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