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Navigating the country back on the right course

In “America Back on Track,” Senator Edward Kennedy argues the U.S. is at a crossroads, and presents an agenda for reform. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Edward Kennedy — often called the liberal lion — has served in the U.S. Senate for more than 40 years. The Massachusetts Democrat has witnessed and participated in a lot of history over that time and has come to the conclusion that America is off track. He's come up with a list of seven challenges to help right the nation's course in a new book “America Back on Track.” Here's an excerpt:

Introduction: Seven Challenges
It helps in this rapidly changing world to look back, to remind ourselves of where we came from, so we can find a clearer vision of where we must go. As I’ve looked at the challenges we face in America today, I am certain we can conquer them. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.

We live in a time of remarkable human achievement and progress that would have been almost unimaginable to our ancestors. Not long ago, our optimistic vision of the world seemed to tell us that the sky was the limit. But now, with the breakthroughs in science and technology ranging from the mapping of the human genome to the discovery of new galaxies waiting to be explored, we realize that the sky is just the beginning.

At the same time, we find ourselves sliding back into a world that would have been all too familiar to our ancestors. War and violence, hunger and poverty, injustice and abuse of power are as old as the human race. But they are not an unchangeable result of our DNA. We know from our history and our not too distant past that the right leadership can summon, as President Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature” and inspire us to meet our challenges and make the world a better place. We can start here at home by putting America back on track to reclaim its legacy of opportunity and possibility.

For me, in a very personal way, recalling the examples and lessons of my own early years has helped me understand the direction I think America must take again.

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family as the youngest of nine children. By their words, their actions, and their love, our parents instilled in all of us the importance of the ties that bind us together — our faith, our family, and our love of this great country. They inspired in us a curiosity to learn and a desire to leave this world better than we found it.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of our family gatherings around the table at dinnertime. Conversation was lively and interesting, prompted by questions from my mother and father about events of the day. With nine of us eager to impress our parents as well as one another, it was hard to get a word in unless you had something interesting to say. We learned early that the way to be an active part of dinner conversation was to have read a book, to have learned something new in school, or, as we got older, to have traveled to new places. Our parents opened our nine young minds to the world that way, and it’s been a wonderful lifelong gift.

I was also blessed to have had a special relationship with my mother’s father, John F. Fitzgerald. Grampa’s lively personality, endearing charm, and beautiful singing voice earned him the nickname Honey Fitz. He had a love of people and a way with words that led to his election to the Massachusetts State Senate in 1892 and the United States House of Representatives in 1894, and to his inauguration as mayor of Boston in 1906. As a young schoolboy I was fortunate to be able to spend nearly every Sunday in Boston with Grampa. I was his avid student and he was an eager tutor. He loved people, and he seemed to talk to everyone. I heard stories of how he campaigned for office, riding on the train from Boston to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where so many Bostonians vacationed. He’d walk through all twelve cars, shaking hands and trading stories, and by the time they reached Maine, Grampa knew almost everyone. Then he’d get right back on the train and come back to Boston with a new group of travelers who were returning home, and he’d do the same thing all over again. That was Grampa. He connected with people and found novel ways to do it wherever he was — in front of the Old North Church, in a hotel while on a vacation in Florida, in the kitchens of Boston restaurants, shaking hands with chefs, waiters, and busboys. He knew how to win votes, and he kept up his outreach to people from all walks of life long after he left office. He was always interested in learning something new, hearing people’s concerns, and staying current on the issues that mattered most to them. Grampa talked, but more important, he listened.

He was also a student of history, and he made it come alive for me. “There’s Bunker Hill, Teddy. Let me tell you about the battle there.” And on he’d go, re-creating the scene for me with his unique enthusiasm. He seemed to know every detail of the American Revolution, but what I remember most was his deep faith in the result of the revolution: the American dream. To him it meant equal opportunity, and opposition to prejudice wherever it existed. As the son of Irish immigrants, he’d suffered from prejudice himself. He told me about the signs in local shop windows that read no Irish need apply. But he also told me how he saw America persevere, overcome bigotry, and create opportunity for these new immigrants. He had fought in those battles himself, and he inspired me to do the same.

In fact, all eight of my great-grandparents reached for that dream. They had come from Ireland to these shores within eighteen months of one another in the middle of the nineteenth century to escape the massive famine in their homeland. They dreamed of finding good jobs, starting their own businesses, and giving their children a decent education. A nation dedicated to equality unleashed the energies of such people, and they loved America because of it. Grampa was determined to continue waging that battle so others could take the same road.

My family’s religious views also demanded dedication to the needs and concerns of the least among us, and my parents passed that gift of faith on to all of their children. Every day we prayed at home or in church, and often at both places. My sisters and brothers and I all attended formal classes in religion and received the sacraments in our church. Our parents believed these lessons of faith would mold the people we would become.

At the same time, they believed deeply in freedom of religion, without interference from government. They had endured ethnic and religious prejudice, and they wanted to end it. Freedom to worship in our faith could only be possible if others were free to worship in theirs.

Still, the lessons we drew from our religious faith influenced our values and our vision of what America should be. For me, the most profound message is in the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Similar themes are found in most of the great books of religion or philosophy. That sense of community and compassion, the belief that we are all in this together, has echoes in every moral system, whether religious or secular, and is at the heart of the great promise of America.

I had just become a teenager when World War II ended, but I was deeply moved by the stories my brother Jack brought home from the war — and by the ultimate sacrifice my brother Joe had made on a highly dangerous mission in the service of our country. I met many of Jack’s friends who had fought in the war, and I saw how proud they all were to have been part of something so much larger than themselves.

I was fourteen when Jack ran for Congress in 1946, but I remember what he told me shortly after he took office. He was taking me around Washington, pointing out the different landmarks. He showed me the White House, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and finally the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings. I loved it. Jack had the same knack as Grampa for bringing history alive. But the thing that is seared in my memory and that has influenced the rest of my life is what my brother said to me at the end of our day of touring. “It’s good that you’re interested in seeing these buildings, Teddy. But I hope you also take an interest in what goes on inside them.”

Jack’s words had an impact on me, but I didn’t realize how much until 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The Court declared segregation in the schools to be unconstitutional, and my eyes were opened to the awesome power of our government to create change for the good. I was still in college, but my future path started to become clearer to me. I heeded my brother’s advice to take an interest in what happened inside the buildings in Washington, and I began to acquire a deeper understanding of government and its institutions. America worked, I realized, because its three separate but equal branches monitored one another. When two of those branches failed to protect the rights of Americans, the third often rose to the occasion. In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court stood up when Congress and the president did not.

The Court’s 1954 decision focused the nation’s attention on the racial inequality that still plagued America nearly a century after the Civil War. It was a time when Martin Luther King, Jr., began to lead the way forward. He had earned a doctoral degree at Boston University School of Theology in 1955, at a time when I was becoming deeply interested in politics. Although I didn’t meet him personally until the 1960s, I was riveted, as was much of the nation, by his unsurpassed eloquence and moral force.

By the time my brother was elected president in 1960, the issue of racial equality had become central to the American agenda. In 1962, I was honored to be elected to represent Massachusetts in the United States Senate and to join with others to be a voice for positive change. I made my maiden speech in the Senate in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and I was proud to be part of the great battle for equality.

For much of my career we were winning the battle, step by step. But it was by no means easy. Violence, tragedy, bloodshed, and loss marred those early years. But Dr. King and the many foot soldiers he inspired had created a powerful nonviolent movement that kept the issue at the forefront of our national discourse. At the national level, President Kennedy and then President Johnson spoke eloquently and directly to the nation about the need for change. We had courageous political leaders who staked their careers and their lives on making America a better and fairer nation — Robert Kennedy, Byron White, Burke Marshall, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Harris Wofford in the Justice Department, to name a few. Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey, Phil Hart, and Everett Dirksen were similar leaders in the Senate. We had judges who understood the real-world implications of their decisions and gave life to the post–Civil War constitutional guarantee of equal protection for all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin. J. Skelly Wright, John Minor Wisdom, Frank M. Johnson, and Earl Warren were just a few of the judicial heroes of the time. We joined together as a nation — Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, women and men — to bring meaning to the profound words inscribed in stone over the entrance to the Supreme Court: equal justice under law.

A century after the Civil War ended, we outlawed racial segregation, eliminated the poll tax that had barred many African Americans from voting, guaranteed equal access to public accommodations, outlawed job discrimination because of race or gender, and passed the Fair Housing Act. These were more than simply laws; they affected real people and real lives and bore witness to who we were as Americans and what kind of nation we wanted to be. We showed the world that our young revolutionary nation was still on the march for progress.

We also tackled other pressing issues. These were hard-fought, often brutal battles, to be sure — as highly charged and polarizing as any debate we are having today — but our leaders continued the drumbeat for equality, and we made progress. In 1972 we outlawed discrimination against women in colleges and universities. The next year we passed the Rehabilitation Act as a down payment on ending discrimination against the disabled. In 1975 we banned job discrimination on the basis of age, and in 1990 we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to give greater protection and access to the full life of our nation to our 40 million brothers and sisters in America who are physically or mentally disabled.

We had also eliminated ethnic quotas on Asian immigrants at a time when only a handful of Asians were allowed to enter the country every year. I was the proud sponsor of the legislation that ended those quotas in 1965, and the enormous contributions of Asian immigrants since that time proves that America is made stronger — not weaker — by our diversity. I strongly support legislation today to keep America open to legal immigrants, to enable them to use their talents and apply their skills in our economy and in all other aspects of our nation’s life.

In the midst of all of the racial battles of the 1960s, we also enacted Medicare, guaranteeing good health care for all our senior citizens. Throughout history, respect for the elderly has been the hallmark of every great nation. After all the sacrifices and contributions they have made for their families and our country, no senior citizen in America should be without health care. By passing Medicare we were saying that the care of the elderly reflected our basic values.

As we were taking these major steps to improve the lives of citizens here at home, the nation was also facing enormous foreign policy challenges and threats that were as great as any we are facing today. The Cold War and the dangers of the atomic age put at risk the world as we knew it. Some sought to misuse concerns about safety as an excuse to trample our most fundamental principles. But because of strong leadership, and the willingness of so many to fight for a better country at the same time as we sought a safer world, we were also able to make progress on equality and justice here at home while making great progress in protecting America from threats from abroad. We had leaders who were able to govern from a position of strength, and who challenged us to be a better nation, without stoking the fears of our people.

The rise of the Soviet Union as a superpower and the dawn of the atomic age had required a new definition of national security. We could not look back. We had to look forward. With considerable and contentious public debate, we developed a national consensus in support of containing the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union. The policy was a remarkable success, but it required constant foresight and vigilance.

A strong military was equally essential to victory in the Cold War. As a nation we were committed to having the best-trained, best-led troops in the world, with the best equipment and best cutting-edge technology. But we kept our broader focus on what it takes to maintain national security. At home, we worked for equality of education and equality of opportunity for all our citizens. In foreign policy we did not look solely to our armed forces to preserve the peace. We took a much broader worldview and looked toward prevention of conflict as much as toward victory in conflict.

In 1963, with the approval of Congress, President Kennedy signed the first nuclear test ban treaty with Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. That early initiative and the later efforts of President Johnson laid the groundwork for the subsequent signing of key arms-control treaties. Before those treaties took effect, commentators had routinely predicted that there would soon be twenty to twenty-five nations with nuclear-weapons capability. In fact, today there are fewer than ten. Prevention, containment, and foresight worked.

Americans respond to challenges, and they also respond to strong leadership. In 1957, after the Soviets launched Sputnik, we responded by doubling the federal education budget to increase the number of college students graduating in science. In 1961, President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade so that space would not be filled with weapons of death but used instead to advance the causes of freedom and knowledge for the whole world. In an address on the space program at Rice University in 1962, he cited William Bradford, the founder of the Plymouth Bay Colony, who said in 1630 that “all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.” With that reference my brother tapped into the essential qualities of the American spirit — courage, honor, and ingenuity — and the nation responded. He didn’t sugarcoat the difficulties we faced. He inspired us to rise to the challenge and to reach new heights of human achievement.

In that same spirit, he announced the formation of the Peace Corps. Within weeks of taking office in 1961 he called on the American people “to sacrifice their energies and time and toil to the cause of world peace and human progress” by helping foreign countries meet their growing need for skilled workers. As he stated:

Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy .... But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps — who works in a foreign land — will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.

Inspired by President Kennedy and the leadership of Sargent Shriver, young men and women by the hundreds and then the thousands answered the call. When I met with a group of volunteers on the fifth anniversary of the Peace Corps, I was deeply moved by the nearly unanimous reason they gave for joining: “No one had ever asked us to do something for someone else.” Like my brother and his friends after World War II, they were proud to be a part of something bigger than themselves: America at its best; Americans at their best.

In an earlier time, in the wake of a devastating war, we had seen the success of the Marshall Plan when we provided financial aid to rebuild the countries of both our allies and the enemies we had vanquished. It was a strong, bold, and magnanimous policy that paid off dramatically in maintaining peace and expanding trade. We benefited from the new markets these rebuilt countries created for our goods and the new products they made for our consumers. We refused to be limited by anger or prejudice against the enemies we had fought so bitterly. Instead, we looked to the future with a rationality that strived to make us safer and more prosperous by making our enemies our friends. Again, it was America at its best.

I do not underestimate the problems we faced in those days. The difficulties were enormous and at times seemed insurmountable. The Cold War raged, the Vietnam War escalated, leaders were murdered, young people died, cities burned. Somehow we found a way to keep going forward. We can find that way again.

Always in the past, and often against large odds, our people have risen to meet the great challenges of the day, and I have no doubt the American people are ready to do so again. But we need bold and inspired leadership. We need to reclaim the American spirit of courage and honor and ingenuity, and set our course anew.

I do not recite these facts from our past to suggest that we should go back to the “good old days.” I cite them instead as inspiration and examples of what can be accomplished in even the most difficult and challenging times when we all come together as a community and as a nation. We must accept the responsibility to meet the challenges in our country and in our world. It is the only realistic way to continue our progress so that America’s best years are still to come.

The challenges confronting us go well beyond the war in Iraq or the dangers of terrorism, as important as those issues are. There are security threats at home and abroad, from foreign enemies and their sympathizers as well as from the age-old enemies poverty and injustice, and the abuse of power here at home. We must face these problems without fear and with honesty and reason. But face them we must, because they affect almost every aspect of our lives and they go to the heart of what it means to be American.

Our leaders today do not look at these challenges directly, openly, and honestly. Far from it. It seems at times that our democracy is in disarray.

We can change direction, and that process begins by defining and meeting the challenges. That is always when America is at its best. Each time we are challenged we exceed ourselves. But today we are not being called upon by our leaders to solve our critical problems. We are not being asked to sacrifice. We are not given the truth about the problems we confront. After more than four decades in the Senate, I have never felt a greater need to call attention to these issues and to do so without scare tactics but with respect for the courage, integrity, and ingenuity that have always defined the true American spirit.

Would we create Social Security today? Would we pass Medicare? Would we enact the great civil rights laws of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968? Would we persuade the world to accept a nuclear arms control treaty?

I believe we will do what is necessary today if we have leaders who make clear what our choices are and who trust the American people with the truth about these challenges. With real leadership, we’ll unite around our great principles and our spirit of community, and together we’ll prevail.

I am writing this book because I believe Americans are ready — indeed, eager — to meet our nation’s greatest challenges. To start that essential process I set forth seven critical challenges. Each reflects a modern test of our oldest principles. But each also offers us a chance to join with the great generations that preceded us in fulfilling America’s promise.

The first challenge is to reclaim our constitutional democracy and keep it vital for the future.

The Founding Fathers established separate executive, judicial, and legislative branches in order to create a system of checks and balances that would protect Americans from tyranny. That system is under threat today. The executive branch has increasingly asserted its right to act in secrecy and to ignore laws passed by Congress. The courts have not yet stepped up to the challenges posed by these unprecedented claims of presidential power, and the majority in Congress has chosen uncritical support for the president instead of meeting their constitutional duty to oversee and check executive power. The judicial branch has increasingly substituted its judgment for that of Congress on issues of national importance. The result is a federal system that is dangerously unbalanced. We must insist on a return to the Framers’ vision of three branches that respect and check one another.

The second challenge is to develop a new definition of national security for a changed world.

I believe that the tragedy of September 11, 2001, will produce the next great generation of Americans, just as the attack on Pearl Harbor summoned a new generation to defend our country and the world. But today’s leaders are looking backward, not forward. They recognize only one method of leadership — military power — while ignoring diplomacy, economic development, and the protection of human rights. They fail to recognize that poverty and national humiliation are as dangerous to our security as any weapon. We need to return to the most effective ways America has influenced nations throughout the world in the past: by offering a helping hand and abiding by our deepest principles — rather than jettisoning them in the name of national security.

The third challenge is to participate fully in a shrinking world.

We now live on a planet where the products we buy may be made in distant lands, our medical records stored in computers half a world away, and vital research carried out in educated corners of the poorest nations. America must respond to globalization by preparing every man, woman, and child to compete successfully in this new world. We must commit ourselves to excellence in education for all and invest the resources needed to reach that goal. Each past generation of Americans has broadened educational opportunities for its youth, and the global economy demands that we do no less today.

The fourth challenge is to achieve an economy that works for all, not just for a privileged few.

The incomes of Americans are as unequal today as they were under President Hoover. The inequality of wealth is even worse — and likely to deepen. As the opening words of the Constitution proclaim, “a more perfect union” is dedicated to “the general welfare” — not prosperity for some and poverty for others.

The fifth challenge is to provide health care to every American.

One of the most jarring consequences of inequality in America is that we are capable of providing first-rate medical care but fail to make it available to many millions of our people. The solution seems as simple as it is obvious, and it is well grounded in the American experience: Medicare for all.

The sixth challenge is to resume the march of progress toward equal opportunity for all.

Despite the many gains, there is still unacceptable prejudice against people of color. There is bigotry against too many others as well, and in important areas we have moved backward in recent years. The evidence of bias against women in the workforce is undeniable, and so is the evidence of bias against gays and lesbians. We cannot allow the march of progress to come to a halt or to shift into reverse.

The seventh challenge is to restore our basic values and reunite our nation.

We hear about our values all the time these days. We are told that we are divided over our most basic beliefs. I do not believe that is true. We have differences of opinion, because we pride ourselves on our pluralism. But there is much more that unites us. We share a profound commitment to basic rights for all — rights to life and liberty, to opportunity, to a decent education, to a job. We believe in fairness and honesty in business. We believe in a free press eager to speak truth to power. We believe that the government cannot tell us whom we can marry or where we can worship or intrude on any of our other important personal and family decisions. With so much to unite us, we must join together in rejecting those who coarsen our political system and divide us for their own political purposes.

These challenges are daunting. But if we ask our people to meet them, they will respond with the same energy and commitment that Americans have always shown when their leaders trust them and lead. Together, we can put America back on track.

Excerpted from “America Back on Track” by Edward M. Kennedy. Copyright © 2006, Edward M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.