Scot Lehigh

Letter recognizes what we hesitate to say

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / August 20, 2009

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It’s hard to read Ted Kennedy’s letter without shaking your head in sadness and in wonder.

Our senior senator is urging state leaders to make arrangements to replace him.

Under current state law, a vacant Senate seat stays empty until a special election is held. But Kennedy thinks the state needs two senators in Washington during that period, so he’s asking that the Legislature let the governor make an interim appointment to fill his post.

‘‘I am now writing to you about an issue that concerns me deeply — the continuity of representation for Massachusetts should a Senate vacancy occur,’’ he says, adding: ‘‘As I look ahead, I am convinced that enabling the governor to fill a Senate vacancy through an interim appointment followed by a special election would best serve the people of our

Commonwealth and country should a vacancy occur.’’ Left unsaid is that such an interim period may well include the debate over universal health care, a cause he has championed with his heart and soul for decades.

His letter is a recognition of what we know but hesitate to say. In all likelihood, Kennedy, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in May of 2008, won’t be returning to the capital for any extended period. His storied career in the US Senate, a career that puts him in the pantheon of truly great legislators, is effectively over.

It’s a tough thing to mull your own mortality. William Saroyan perhaps best described the way most of us feel, at least on a subconscious level, when contemplating our own demise.

‘‘Everybody has to die,’’ the author said a few days before his own death, ‘‘but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.’’

There are no exceptions, of course. But how easy it would be to think about something else, to deny reality.

Kennedy’s letter, dated July 2 but only delivered Tuesday, doesn’t quite say how the Senate vacancy would occur.

It’s possible he plans to resign the seat he has held since January 1963 as things progress. Or perhaps he feels the end is drawing near.

Still, this much is clear. In the twilight of his life, the senior senator is thinking of the best interest of the state he loves.

In many ways, of course, it will be impossible to replace Kennedy. Certainly you can’t replace his knowledge, either of the complexities of health care or of the ways of Washington. And no short-timer will have the deep, collegial relationships with his colleagues, the trust and respect that has made him such an effective figure. All of that has been sorely missed because he’s been sidelined during the health care debate.

But numerically, Kennedy is right. Massachusetts needs a second voice in the Senate. And in a debate where every single Senate vote may count, the Democrats need their full contingent present and counted.

Heretofore, state leaders have been reluctant to entertain the subject.

Not only would it have seemed insensitive to the ailing senator, but there was also a political dilemma.

Just a few years ago, state law gave the governor the ability to appoint a successor in the event of a Senate vacancy. But in 2004, the Democratic Legislature rewrote the law to require a special election because they didn’t want Mitt Romney to appoint a fellow Republican if John Kerry won the presidency. So to revise the law again will open them to charges of hypocrisy — and of a back-room deal designed to help President Obama.

Kennedy’s selfless letter, however, should change the conversation. Further, he offers this commonsense proposal to ensure against anyone getting an unfair advantage: The governor should secure an explicit commitment that the person he appoints will not run in the special election.

Certainly there will be no shortage of distinguished people who would be honored to fill Ted Kennedy’s shoes, if only for a short time. Given the eminent reasonableness of his proposal, the noncommittal response from the legislative leadership is puzzling.

In a big, statesman-like gesture, Kennedy has pointed the way. The Legislature and the governor should follow his lead.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at