THE death of "liberal lion" Teddy Kennedy has sparked a mass outpouring of remembrance and tribute to the life of the legendary Senator.
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have seized the opportunity to try to regain some traction in the push to reform American health care, a cause close to Kennedy's heart.
Senator Chris Dodd, a longtime friend of Kennedy who has served as temporary chairman of the Senate health committee in the late senator's absence, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying he hopes Kennedy's death "will maybe cause people to take a breath, step back, and start talking with each other again, in more civil tones, about what needs to be done".
Indeed, it is an opportune time to try to reform the debate about reform, and a note civility is desperately needed.
Health-care reform is aimed at bettering the lives of millions of people and would seem worthy of serious debate. Instead, the effort has drawn conspiracy theorists and would-be militiamen - armed and ready for battle - into the daylight, as the debate has been dragged into a realm of baffling insanity, sometimes even by members of the Senate.
The popular but ludicrous notion that the House Bill currently under discussion would create "death panels" - in essence, government bodies that decide whose life is worth saving and whose should be ended - has sparked a wave of unfounded fear that widespread euthanasia is imminent, and has led a disturbingly vocal sector of protesters to declare that Barack Obama is a Nazi, among other things.
This frenzy of racism and willful ignorance is troubling enough, but that's only the beginning. Proud gun-owners have been showing up to health-care protests sporting loaded handguns and even assault rifles, ostensibly to flaunt their second-amendment rights. Their actions are shockingly legal, despite their proximity to the president. But it makes you wonder which death panels pose the real threat.
Now is the time to do as Mr Dodd suggested - step back and take a breath. Bringing American health care in line with the rest of the developed world is urgently needed; Mr Obama has made it the cornerstone of his presidency.
But what's the big deal?
Forget for a moment that nearly 50 million Americans live without any kind of health coverage, or that the country spends some US$2 trillion on annual care. According to a June report in the American Journal of Medicine, US medical bills in 2007 were at the root of 62 per cent of personal bankruptcies.
The shocking part is that more than 75 per cent of those bankrupt families already had health insurance, but they were still buried by their medical bills.
Conservative critics of health-care reform claim that America's privatised system makes for the best health care in the world. That is only partly accurate, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute, a non-partisan public policy think-tank, which says the US ranks among the best in the world in areas such as treating cancer, but is nowhere near the best in areas such as deaths from treatable and preventable illnesses.
Democrats now refer to "health insurance reform", partly as a rhetorical concession, but also since it is the insurance system that really requires an overhaul. Health insurance companies are notorious for finding loopholes that disavow them of having to pay when their customers get sick.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently about a former health-insurance executive who would get handsomely rewarded whenever he could find a way out of paying a patient's bills, thus saving his firm potentially millions of dollars.
Writing in Newsweek last month, Kennedy said that providing adequate health care to all Americans was "the cause of my life". Many have said that his absence from the Senate is a big reason why the debate has gotten so out of control. Some hope to rally around the death of the lion and pass a reform Bill in his honour.
Such a storybook ending seems unlikely in the short term. The debate about health care has slipped off the rails and, powered by misinformation and scare-mongering, is quickly becoming a train wreck. The best health-care reformers can hope for immediately is to breathe some reason back into the debate.
Reforming health care (and health insurance) is an infinitely complex undertaking and requires serious thought. The Bill currently taking shape is hardly perfect, but in order for reform to be successful - and it must be successful - honest and legitimate concerns must be addressed and thoughtful compromise needs to take place.
Kennedy commanded respect even from his fiercest critics, which is how he was able to accomplish so much in his storied career. If members of Congress truly want to honour his legacy when they return from recess next month, they will take a deep breath and restart the debate with genuine civility because, as Mr Dodd said, "that's what Teddy would do".