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Senator Edward M. Kennedy dies at 77

By Martin F. Nolan
Globe Correspondent / August 26, 2009

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Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who carried aloft the torch of a Massachusetts dynasty and championed a liberal ideology during almost a half century in the Senate, but whose personal and political failings may have prevented him from realizing the ultimate prize of the presidency, died Tuesday night at his home in Hyannis Port. He was 77 and had been battling brain cancer.

Overcoming a history of family tragedy, which included the assassinations of a brother who was president and another who sought to occupy the White House, Kennedy seized on the role of being a "Senate man." He became a Democratic titan of Washington who fought for the less fortunate, who crafted unlikely deals with conservative Republicans, and who ceaselessly sought support for universal health coverage.

"Teddy," as he was known to intimates, constituents, and even his fiercest enemies, was a unwavering symbol to the left and the right -- the former for his unapologetic embrace of liberalism, and latter for his value as a political target. But with his fiery rhetoric, his distinctive Massachusetts accent, and his role as representative of one of the nation's best-known political families, he was widely recognized as an American original. In the end, some of those who might have been his harshest political enemies, including former President George W. Bush, found ways to collaborate with the man who was called the "last lion" of the Senate.

Kennedy's White House aspirations may have doomed by his actions on the night that he drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island and failed to promptly report the accident in which a woman died. When Kennedy nonetheless later sought to wrest the presidential nomination from an incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, he failed in his quest. But that failure prompted him to reevaluate his place in history, and he dedicated himself to fulfilling his political agenda by other means, famously saying, "the dream shall never die."

With Kennedy's death, as it was with the passing of his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, another chapter has closed in an extraordinary family epic, one that has captivated people worldwide for decades, and has been recounted in countless books, television shows, and movies. But, as Kennedy himself often suggested, it seems certain that his causes not only will endure, but also will remain at the forefront of the American political stage, most recently with the ongoing fight over healthcare legislation.

He was the youngest child of a famous family, but his legacy derived from quiet subcommittee meetings, conference reports, and markup sessions. The result of his efforts meant hospital care for a grandmother, a federal loan for a working college student, or a better wage for a dishwasher.

With a family saga that blended Greek tragedy and soap opera, the Kennedys fascinated America and the world for half a century. "I have every expectation of living a long and worthwhile life," Senator Kennedy said in 1994. This expectation contrasted with the fate of his brothers, all of whom died prematurely. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was killed in 1944 on a World War II bombing mission. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for president in Los Angeles in 1968.

Senator Kennedy's congressional career was remarkable not only for its accomplishments, but for its length of 47 years. Only Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina served longer than Senator Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy brought to the Senate a trait his brothers lacked patience and what his mother called a "ninth-child talent," a blend of toughness and tact.

Birth of a political legend

The parents agreed to the first request, but named the child Edward Moore Kennedy, after one of his father's assistants. Part of Senator Kennedy's boyhood was spent in London, where his father was US ambassador to Great Britain. After nine schools on two continents, he entered Milton Academy in 1946 and maintained mostly midlevel grades, including in Spanish, a subject that would trouble him again at Harvard College, where, in 1951, he asked a friend to take a Spanish exam for him. A proctor recognized the substitute and both students were expelled, but were told they could return to Harvard if they showed evidence of "constructive and responsible citizenship."

For the 19-year-old freshman, the incident became the first of several episodes creating public doubts about his character.

He entered the military draft, and Private Kennedy met a more diverse group of people at Fort Dix, N.J., than he would have in Cambridge. His father helped arrange an assignment, during fighting in Korea, to NATO headquarters in Paris.

In 1954, after two years in the Army, Senator Kennedy returned to complete his studies at Harvard, then graduated from the University of Virginia Law School.

At a family event, he met Joan Bennett, the daughter of an advertising executive. They married in 1958, the same year Ted Kennedy managed the Senate re-election campaign of his brother John against Vincent J. Celeste of East Boston. His assignment was to steer the incumbent to a victory big enough to impress national Democratic Party bosses. The victory margin was 857,000, the highest in the Commonwealth's history.

In 1959, Ted Kennedy headed west to help his brother's presidential campaign. At the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, when Wyoming cinched JFK's nomination, Edward Kennedy stood among the state's delegates, cheering them on.

On to the Senate
JFK was elected in 1960 and declared in his inaugural address that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." This iconography would play out over generations of Kennedys as well, who would take up the torch from a family member. JFK persuaded Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo to fill his vacant Senate seat by appointing a Harvard classmate of the president's, Benjamin A. Smith II, the mayor of Gloucester.

On March 14, 1962, after he attained the constitutional age of 30 to be eligible for election to the Senate, Edward Kennedy announced his candidacy for the unexpired term of his brother. Ted Kennedy's only public experience was a year as assistant district attorney of Suffolk County, and he had to take on two Massachusetts dynasties.

In the special election, he first faced Attorney General Edward J. McCormack Jr., the nephew of US House Speaker John W. McCormack. At a debate in South Boston, McCormack ridiculed his opponent, saying the senatorial job "should be merited, not inherited." Pointing his finger at Mr. Kennedy, he said: "If his name were Edward Moore, with his qualifications with your qualifications, Teddy if it was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke."

Ted Kennedy looked pained and shocked. His silence created a wave of sympathy.

"Some say Eddie came on too strong, others still say he was right on the mark; I agree with both of them," Senator Kennedy said at McCormack's funeral 35 years later.

Ted Kennedy went on to win 69 percent of the primary vote and then to defeat George Cabot Lodge, the former Republican senator's son, in the general election.

Even with a brother in the White House and another, Robert, as attorney general, a freshman senator was supposed to work diligently for local concerns and to perform committee work in patient obscurity. Senator Kennedy did so, taking on his brother's legislative concerns on refugees and immigrants. He served on the Labor and Judiciary committees and sought "more for Massachusetts" by pursuing fishery development and a Cambridge electronics research center for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Disaster strikes
On Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Kennedy was presiding over the Senate, a chore assigned to freshman members, when a messenger arrived at the rostrum with the news from Dallas. After confirming with the White House the president's death, Mr. Kennedy and his sister, Eunice, flew to Hyannis Port to deliver the news to their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had suffered a stroke in 1961 and could not speak or walk.

In Congress, Mr. Kennedy did not deliver his "maiden speech" until April 1964. The subject was civil rights, the unfinished business of his slain brother. In Washington, his own family had grown with the birth of Patrick Joseph Kennedy in 1963. Kara Anne had been born in 1960, and Edward Jr. in 1961.

In 1964, eager to win a full six-year term in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy planned to visit Springfield to accept the endorsement of the state convention. On the night of June 19, after casting votes on final passage of a civil rights bill, Mr. Kennedy and the convention's keynote speaker, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, boarded a twin-engine private plane in Washington en route to Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.

In heavy fog, the aircraft crashed in an apple orchard, killing the pilot and a Kennedy aide. Mr. Kennedy sustained three broken vertebrae, fractured ribs, a punctured lung, and internal hemorrhaging.

After a four-month recuperation, Mr. Kennedy was released, but back injuries would cause him pain for the rest of his life. The Republican opponent was Howard Whitmore, the former mayor of Newton, who said, "My opponent is flat on his back, and, from a gentleman's standpoint, I can't campaign against that." Mr. Kennedy was reelected with 74.3 percent of the vote.

In that same election, the voters of New York elected Robert Kennedy as their senator. In 1965, on the first day of the 89th Congress, the Kennedys were sworn in together.

The brothers teased each other frequently, but seldom diverged in their liberal voting patterns. Edward took the lead on issues such as repealing the poll tax.

By 1967, rallies against the Vietnam War were proliferating and on Nov. 30,

Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota agreed, after Robert Kennedy declined, to challenge Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries. After McCarthy won 42 percent of the New Hampshire vote and before LBJ would bow out, RFK reconsidered and entered the contest. In June, after winning the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. At St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, the voice of the surviving Kennedy brother cracked as he eulogized Robert as "a good man, who saw war and tried to stop it." Mr. Kennedy became the surrogate father to his brothers's children and a patriarchal figure in the growing clan.

Vietnam dominated the 1968 convention, as did speculation about Mr. Kennedy's intentions. "Like my brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard," he said at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. "Sustained by the memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, to excellence, and to the courage that distinguished their lives."

But the Capitol, not the White House, seemed the focus of his intentions. After Nixon defeated Hubert H. Humphrey in a close contest, Mr. Kennedy surprised many in Washington by running for majority whip. By a 31-26 vote, he defeated the incumbent, another son of a famous political dynasty, Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana. On a cold January night, before celebrating at his home in McLean, Va., the 36-year-old senator drove to Arlington National Cemetery, where the gravesite of Robert was under construction next to John's.

Majority leader Mike Mansfield of Montana welcomed his new assistant, saying, "Of all the Kennedys, the senator is the only one who was and is a real Senate man." On July 18, 1969, Mansfield predicted that his colleague would not run for president in 1972, saying "He's in no hurry. He's young. He likes the Senate."

On that same day, Mr. Kennedy arrived on an island that his actions would make notorious. On Chappaquiddick, across a narrow strait from Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, six women who had worked on RFK's campaign gathered for a reunion at a rented cottage.

Mary Jo Kopechne, 29, had worked for RFK's Senate office. A passenger in a car driven by Mr. Kennedy, she drowned after the car skidded off a bridge. Mr. Kennedy failed to report the accident for several hours. The accident gave the senator a minor concussion and a major personal and political crisis.

On the same day American astronauts walked on the moon, fulfilling a JFK pledge, the accident was front page news across the globe. The senator was unable to explain the accident for days. After consulting in Hyannis Port with his brothers' advisers, he gave a televised speech a week later. He praised Kopechne, wondered aloud "whether some awful curse did actually hang over the Kennedys," then asked Massachusetts voters whether he should resign. They replied overwhelmingly in the negative.

His critics snarled that Mr. Kennedy "got away with it" at Chappaquiddick, but the price he paid in personal grief was as high as the cost in presidential politics. During the Cold War, voters expected quick and cool judgment from presidents. Mr. Kennedy, in effect, disqualified himself when he confessed on television that he should have alerted police immediately: "I was overcome, I'm frank to say, by a jumble of emotions: grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion, and shock."

Vietnam dominated the 1968 convention, as did speculation about Mr. Kennedy's intentions. "Like my brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard," he said at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. "Sustained by the memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, to excellence, and to the courage that distinguished their lives."

But the Capitol, not the White House, seemed the focus of his intentions. After Nixon defeated Hubert H. Humphrey in a close contest, Mr. Kennedy surprised many in Washington by running for majority whip. By a 31-26 vote, he defeated the incumbent, another son of a famous political dynasty, Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana. On a cold January night, before celebrating at his home in McLean, Va., the 36-year-old senator drove to Arlington National Cemetery, where the gravesite of Robert was under construction next to John's.

Majority leader Mike Mansfield of Montana welcomed his new assistant, saying, "Of all the Kennedys, the senator is the only one who was and is a real Senate man." On July 18, 1969, Mansfield predicted that his colleague would not run for president in 1972, saying "He's in no hurry. He's young. He likes the Senate."

On that same day, Mr. Kennedy arrived on an island that his actions would make notorious. On Chappaquiddick, across a narrow strait from Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, six women who had worked on RFK's campaign gathered for a reunion at a rented cottage.

Mary Jo Kopechne, 29, had worked for RFK's Senate office. A passenger in a car driven by Mr. Kennedy, she drowned after the car skidded off a bridge. Mr. Kennedy failed to report the accident for several hours. The accident gave the senator a minor concussion and a major personal and political crisis.

On the same day American astronauts walked on the moon, fulfilling a JFK pledge, the accident was front page news across the globe. The senator was unable to explain the accident for days. After consulting in Hyannis Port with his brothers' advisers, he gave a televised speech a week later. He praised Kopechne, wondered aloud "whether some awful curse did actually hang over the Kennedys," then asked Massachusetts voters whether he should resign. They replied overwhelmingly in the negative.

His critics snarled that Mr. Kennedy "got away with it" at Chappaquiddick, but the price he paid in personal grief was as high as the cost in presidential politics. During the Cold War, voters expected quick and cool judgment from presidents. Mr. Kennedy, in effect, disqualified himself when he confessed on television that he should have alerted police immediately: "I was overcome, I'm frank to say, by a jumble of emotions: grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion, and shock."

He returned to his work in the Senate and in December 1969 began a long campaign "to move now to establish a comprehensive national healthcare insurance program." He also led the effort to give 18-year-olds the right to vote. After winning reelection in 1970 with 62 percent of the vote, he found how Chappaquiddick reverberated in the Senate chamber. In January 1971, Byrd defeated Mr. Kennedy for whip by a 31-24 vote of the Democratic caucus.

Years later, Mr. Kennedy privately thanked Byrd because the loss made him concentrate on committee work in healthcare, refugees, civil rights, the judiciary, and foreign policy, areas in which he would leave a lasting imprint.

While involved in Senate work, he discovered that his teen-age son, Edward Jr., had to have his leg amputated. His son's cancer cooled the senator's ambitions about running for president in 1976.

Jimmy Carter of Georgia, elected president in 1976, was not a Kennedy Democrat. The ideological divide between the two was profound. Mr. Kennedy thought Carter's healthcare programs were timid. The president sometimes resented Mr. Kennedy's celebrity status, especially when foreign leaders consulted with the senator.

Democrats held a mid-term conference in Memphis in December 1978, dominated by the senator's nautical metaphor. "Sometimes a party must sail against the wind," he said. "We cannot afford to drift or lie at anchor. We cannot heed the call of those who say it is time to furl the sail." Carter's response included telling a group of Democratic congressmen that if Mr. Kennedy did challenge him, "I'll whip his ass."

On Nov. 7, 1979, saying he was "compelled by events and by my commitment to public life," Mr. Kennedy formally declared his candidacy for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. "For many months, we have been sinking into crisis," Mr. Kennedy said. "Yet we hear no clear summons from the center of power." He stood on the stage of Faneuil Hall, before a giant painting of Daniel Webster, a Massachusetts senator who never became president.

Unable to persuade Democrats to abandon a Democratic president, Mr. Kennedy won only 10 of the 35 presidential primaries. In July, he reluctantly endorsed Carter at the Democratic National Convention in New York. After congratulating Carter, he said, "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

In 1981, because of Ronald Reagan's coattails, Mr. Kennedy was in the Senate minority for the first time. But he was accustomed to reaching across the aisle for support. Throughout his career, Mr. Kennedy's name animated Republican fund-raising efforts. In reality, the GOP's bete noire cooperated with party leaders from Barry Goldwater to Bob Dole to Orrin Hatch.

Mr. Kennedy's success owed more to craftsmanship than charm, more to diligence than blarney. In 1985, outside the hearing room of the Armed Service Committee, a reporter encountered Senator John Warner, a Republican of Virginia, who spontaneously volunteered praise of his liberal colleague from Massachusetts: "This man works as hard as anyone. When he knows his subject, he really knows it. He listens, he learns, and he's an asset to this committee."

In 1985, Mr. Kennedy renounced presidential ambitions, saying to Bay State voters, "I will run for reelection to the Senate. I know that this decision means that I may never be president. But the pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is."

He had watched with pride as his nephew Joseph won the seat vacated by House Speaker Tip O'Neill in 1986 and in 1994 as his son, Patrick, won a congressional seat from Rhode Island. But not all family matters were a source of pride. In 1991, the senator had to testify in Palm Beach about rape charges brought against his nephew William Kennedy Smith in the aftermath of a drinking party organized by Mr. Kennedy. The incident embarrassed the senator into silence during judiciary committee hearings into allegations of sexist conduct against Clarence Thomas, later confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.

Mr. Kennedy's reputation as a roustabout lingered until, years after he and Joan divorced in 1982, Mr. Kennedy met Victoria Reggie, a lawyer and divorced mother of two who was 22 years younger than he was. They wed in 1992 and began a partnership that brought equilibrium and focus to Mr. Kennedy's life.

In the 1992 presidential election, Mr. Kennedy endorsed his home state colleague Paul Tsongas, but enthusiastically backed Bill Clinton in the fall. In 1994, when Republicans recaptured the House for the first time in 40 years, no Democrat was safe, even the leading lion of liberalism in Massachusetts. A Republican businessman, Mitt Romney, ran against him and captured the attention of some until, in a Faneuil Hall debate, Mr. Kennedy proved his mastery of the issues.

For the senator, it was a relatively close call. He won with 58 percent of the vote, his smallest margin since his first election in 1962. Mr. Kennedy returned to form, winning re-election by lopsided margins in 2000 and 2006.

During the administration of Republican President George W. Bush, Mr. Kennedy led the Senate’s antiwar faction as the president pressed Congress for the authorization to use military force against Iraq.

In a speech at Johns Hopkins University about a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Kennedy said the administration had failed to make the case for a pre-emptive attack.

"I do not accept the idea that trying other alternatives is either futile or perilous, that the risks of waiting are greater than the risk of war," he said, recalling his brother's restraint in dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.

Two weeks later, the House and Senate passed the Iraq war resolution by wide margins. Mr. Kennedy was among 23 Democrats who voted in opposition.

But Mr. Kennedy displayed a willingness to be helpful when he thought Mr. Bush was right. He was a force behind the Bush administration's chief domestic policy achievement in its first term, No Child Left Behind, the sweeping education bill that mandated testing to measure student progress.

Mr. Kennedy was a lead author and attended the signing ceremony in February 2002 at Hamilton High School in Ohio. When Mr. Bush introduced him, the president said: "He is a fabulous United States senator. When he's against you, it's tough. When he's with you, it is a great experience."

In early 2008, shortly before his own cancer diagnosis, Senator Kennedy surprised much of the political world by endorsing Senator Barack Obama for president over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The comparisons between Obama and John F. Kennedy were obvious to many, and the endorsement was seen as a passing of the Kennedy torch to the man aspiring to be the nation's first black president.

Less than two weeks before Obama would face the far better-known Clinton in

"Super Tuesday" contests in about half the states of the country, Senator

Kennedy's endorsement came at an optimal moment. Obama held Clinton to a draw in the Super Tuesday contests, setting him up for his nomination and election as president.

Despite his illness, Senator Kennedy made a forceful appearance at the Democratic convention in Denver, exhorting his party to victory and declaring that the fight for universal health insurance had been "the cause of my life."

He pursued that cause vigorously, and even as his health declined, he spent days reaching out to colleagues to win support for a sweeping healthcare overhaul; when members of Obama's administration questioned the president's decision to spend so much political capital on the seemingly intractable healthcare issue, Obama reportedly replied, "I promised Teddy."