As we dig through the latest rounds of torture disclosures, it’s instructive to remember a moment from June of 2004. In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib revelations, it came to light that the abuse of detainees received legal sanction from the Department of Justice two years earlier, through a series of memoranda asserting constitutional justifications for wartime abuse. John Yoo and Jay Bybee were not yet household names. Very few people, even in Washington, knew who David Addington was. John Ashcroft was the great progressive bete noire, and it wouldn’t be known for another two years that for all his flaws, he resisted even further abuses from his hospital bed three months earlier, an act of patriotism of the highest order.

Yet on June 8, 2004, Ashcroft went before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had just learned from the press that Yoo and Bybee, from their perch at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, had authored memoranda in August 2002 asserting inherent presidential authority to exempt the president from laws prohibiting torture. The committee wanted to see these extraordinary documents. Ashcroft refused. When pressed to give the basis for his refusal, he asserted simple prerogative — not executive privilege, which would have carried its own further problems in dealing with congress, but simple refusal.

It was Ted Kennedy who refused to allow Ashcroft and the administration he served operate in such an unrestricted manner on a subject of such national importance. He demanded Ashcroft co-sign for the assertion of authority to torture itself and for the subsequent refusal to provide congress with the written assertion. When Ashcroft glowered at Kennedy by way of response, the senator raised the stakes. He quoted the Washington Post‘s description of the memo and began holding up the Abu Ghraib photographs. "In other words, the president of the United States has the responsibility," he said. "Because we know, when we have these kinds of orders, what happens. We get the stress tests. We get the use of dogs. We get the forced nakedness that we’ve all seen on these. And we get the hooding. This is what directly results when you have that kind of memoranda out there."

That was one representative moment from the career of Senator Edward Kennedy, extraordinary both for the way the man rose to the challenge of his times and how routine it was that he would. RIP.