A Legislative Listener

You don’t have to have agreed with anything Senator Edward Kennedy ever said to admire him as a United States Senator. Certainly his legislative accomplishments are significant, but he is being remembered as a friend and colleague of Senators from all political persuasions. In fact, his most noteworthy legislative successes were those where he co-sponsored boldly bipartisan bills in the Senate with conservative colleagues…for the good of the country. At his passing, we can surely be grateful that he chose to devote his life to public service, but we can also be grateful that he trusted democracy enough to learn from those who disagreed with him as much as he did from those who supported him. In that respect, I believe Senator Ted Kennedy will be remembered in the annals of history as one of our greatest United States Senators…and perhaps one of the last great legislative listeners.

Truly effective legislation is not about compromise…that’s a huge misunderstanding of the power of democracy at its best. Compromise requires equal sacrifice of what is held valuable in order to find a legislative solution that really satisfied no one. Effective legislation, on the other hand, is built on common-ground values that are discovered through a deep interest in the whole breadth of thought on a specific issue or topic. Only true-believers in democracy dare to trust this course of action, because it’s so politically volatile…the risks are many, and the success rate is relatively small, but the fulfillment on a personal and national basis is incredible. Sen. Ted Kennedy was one of our premier high-stakes legislators across more than four decades, crafting public policy by listening carefully to those who disagreed with him without ever losing sight of his own values in the process. Now THAT’S an effective legislative legacy.

Listening is an art…and in politics, it’s a miracle! It’s not just what we do in order to know when another person gives us enough time to jump in with our own opinions…it’s a truly responsive conversational practice. An active listener is actually interested in what another person might say…hard to believe, but true. An active listener understands that others…particularly those who have dramatically different views on complex dilemmas…hold the key to long-term public policy solutions. It’s not the people who agree with us who provide the most critical legislative information…it’s the ‘other’ with a totally unique perspective from all supporters who can connect-the-dots for a piece of legislation that exceeds the hopes of all partisan factions. This is the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

What can we learn from the imperfect life of Ted Kennedy? First, I believe we can recognize the incredible power of our form of democracy…he continued to believe in our democracy against all odds and in the face of terrible personal tragedy. Next, I believe we can dare to actively listen…he succeeded in many legislative efforts by listening to opponents first and crafting legislative parameters second. Then, I believe we can be true to our own values and principles as we listen carefully to others…he could work effectively with many different legislators, but he never lost his own moral compass in the process. In these respects, I believe Sen. Kennedy can be a non-partisan role model…for everyone and anyone.

Yes, I’m deeply concerned about the direction and mood of our country…it seems that few people are interested in understanding the feelings and opinions of others. To me, this means also that few people truly trust democracy. Whether you liked Ted Kennedy’s views or not, I believe all reasonable people would agree…we lost an American treasure. In light of this point, we can each decide that his trust in democracy can be our inspiration for future, careful listening.

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