Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Champion of Health Care Reform, Dies at 77
For nearly a half-century in the Senate, Kennedy was a steadfast champion of the working class and the poor, a powerful voice on health care, civil rights, and war and peace. To the American public, though, he was best known as the last surviving son of America's most glamorous political family, the eulogist of a clan shattered again and again by tragedy.
His family announced his death in a brief statement released early Wednesday.
"We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," the statement said. "We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all."
Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962, when his brother John was president, and served longer than all but two senators in history. Over the decades, he put his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to clear the Congress.
His own hopes of reaching the White House were damaged -- perhaps doomed -- in 1969 by the scandal that came to be known as Chappaquiddick, an auto accident that left a young woman dead.
Kennedy -- known to family, friends and foes simply as Ted -- ended his quest for the presidency in 1980 with a stirring valedictory that echoed across the decades: "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."
The third-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
His death late Tuesday comes just weeks after that of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver on Aug. 11.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kennedy's son Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said his father had defied the predictions of doctors by surviving more than a year with his fight against brain cancer.
The younger Kennedy said that gave family members a surprise blessing, as they were able to spend more time with the senator and to tell him how much he had meant to their lives.
The younger Kennedy said his father's legacy was built largely in the Senate.
"He has authored more pieces of major legislation than any other United States senator," Patrick Kennedy said in the interview. "He is the penultimate senator. I don't need to exaggerate when I talk about my father. That's the amazing thing. He breaks all the records himself."
Ted Kennedy fought his way back to Capitol Hill that summer to cast a pivotal vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He made sure he was there again last January to see his former Senate colleague Barack Obama sworn in as the nation's first black president, only to collapse in fatigue at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
He died without seeing his dream of universal health care come true. From his sickbed earlier this summer, he had worked the phones, making a final push for what he called "the cause of my life" in a rousing speech at the Democratic convention last August.
After Chappaquiddick especially, Kennedy gained a reputation as a heavy drinker and a womanizer, a tragically flawed figure haunted by the fear that he did not quite measure up to his brothers. As his weight ballooned, he was lampooned by comics and cartoonists in the 1980s and '90s as the very embodiment of government waste, bloat and decadence.
But in his later years, after he had remarried, he buckled down and came to be regarded as a statesman on Capitol Hill, seen as one of the most effective, hardworking lawmakers Washington has ever seen.
A barrel-chested figure with a swath of white hair, a booming voice and a thick, widely imitated Boston accent, he coupled fist-pumping floor speeches with his well-honed Irish charm and formidable negotiating skills. He was both a passionate liberal and a clear-eyed pragmatist, unafraid to reach across the aisle to get things done.
Over the decades, he managed to put his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to clear the Congress. In fact, for all his insecurities, he ended up perhaps the most influential liberal voice of his time.
"There are very few people who have touched the life of this nation in the same breadth and the same order of magnitude," Obama said in April as he signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act into law.
He arrived at his place in the Senate after a string of family tragedies so terrible it sometimes seemed as if the Kennedys -- America's foremost political dynasty -- were as cursed as they were charmed. He was the only one of the four Kennedy brothers to die of natural causes.
Kennedy's eldest brother, Joseph, was killed in a plane crash in World War II. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles as he campaigned for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash at age 38 along with his wife in 1999.
It fell to Ted Kennedy to deliver the eulogies, to comfort his brothers' widows, to mentor fatherless nieces and nephews. It was Ted Kennedy who walked JFK's daughter, Caroline, down the aisle at her wedding.
Tragedy had a way of bringing out his eloquence.
Kennedy sketched a dream of a better future as he laid to rest his brother Robert in 1968: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."
After John Jr.'s death, the senator eulogized the young man by saying: "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years."
His own legacy was blighted on the night of July 18, 1969, when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha's Vineyard. Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old worker with RFK's campaign, was found dead in the submerged car's back seat 10 hours later.
Kennedy, then 37, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence and a year's probation. A judge eventually determined there was "probable cause to believe that Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently ... and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne."
At the height of the scandal, Kennedy went on national television to explain himself in an extraordinary 13-minute address in which he denied driving drunk and rejected rumors of "immoral conduct" with Ms. Kopechne. He said he was haunted by "irrational" thoughts immediately after the accident, and wondered "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys." He said his failure to report the accident right away was "indefensible."
In 1980, Kennedy took the extraordinary step of challenging a sitting president, Jimmy Carter, for the party's nomination. Kennedy's left-of-center politics made him an unlikely choice. But Chappaquiddick -- and lingering suspicions that the famous Kennedy money and clout had gotten him out of the trouble -- damaged his chances, too.
Kennedy's speech in accepting defeat to Carter electrified the Democratic convention and turned out to be a defining moment. At 48, he seemed liberated from the towering expectations and high hopes invested in him after the death of his brothers, and he plunged himself into his work in the Senate. He never again made a serious run at the presidency.
First elected to the Senate in 1962 to his brother John's seat, easily re-elected in 2006, Kennedy served close to 47 years, longer than all but two senators in history: Robert Byrd of West Virginia (more than 50 1/2 years and counting) and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who put in nearly 47 1/2 years. Kennedy's career spanned 10 presidencies.
His legislative achievements included bills to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Meals on Wheels for the elderly, abortion clinic access, family leave, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
He was also a key negotiator on legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens and was a driving force for peace in Ireland and a persistent critic of the war in Iraq.
Kennedy did not always prevail. In late 2008, he unsuccessfully lobbied for niece Caroline's appointment to the Senate from New York.
Wildly popular among Democrats, Kennedy routinely won re-election by large margins. He grew comfortable in his role as Republican foil and leader of his party's liberal wing.
President George W. Bush welcomed Kennedy to the Rose Garden on several occasions as he signed bills that the Democrat helped write.
"He's the kind of person who will state his case, sometimes quite eloquently and vociferously, and then on another issue will come along and you can work with him," Bush said shortly before his first term began in 2001.
But Bush was also the target of some of Kennedy's sharpest attacks. Kennedy assailed the Iraq war as Bush's Vietnam, a conflict "made up in Texas" and marketed by the Bush administration for political gain.
Kennedy and his niece Caroline shook up the Democratic establishment in January 2008 when they endorsed Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination for president. The ailing Massachusetts senator electrified delegates when he made a surprise trip to Denver last August to address the Democratic convention and press for Obama's election.
After Obama won in November, Kennedy renewed words once spoken by his brother John, declaring: "The world is changing. The old ways will not do. ... It is time for a new generation of leadership."
Born in 1932, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Edward Moore Kennedy was part of a family bristling with political ambition, beginning with maternal grandfather John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, a congressman and mayor of Boston.
Round-cheeked Teddy was thrown out of Harvard in 1951 for cheating, after arranging for a classmate to take a freshman Spanish exam for him. He eventually returned, earning his degree in 1956.
He went on to the University of Virginia Law School, and in 1962, while his brother John was president, announced plans to run for the Senate seat JFK had vacated in 1960. A family friend had held the seat in the interim because Kennedy was not yet 30, the minimum age for a senator.
Kennedy was immediately involved in a bruising primary campaign against state Attorney General Edward J. McCormack, a nephew of U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack.
"If your name was simply Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke," chided McCormack.
Kennedy won the primary by 300,000 votes and went on to overwhelmingly defeat Republican George Cabot Lodge, son of the late Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, in the general election.
Devastated by his brothers' assassinations and injured in a 1964 plane crash that left him with back pain that would plague him for decades, Kennedy temporarily withdrew from public life in 1968. But he re-emerged in 1969 to be elected majority whip of the Senate.
Then came Chappaquiddick.
Kennedy still handily won re-election in 1970, but he lost his leadership job. He remained outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War and support of social programs but ruled out a 1976 presidential bid.
In the summer of 1978, a Gallup Poll showed that Democrats preferred Kennedy over President Carter 54 percent to 32 percent. A year later, Kennedy decided to run for the White House with a campaign that accused Carter of turning his back on the Democratic agenda.
The difficult task of dislodging a sitting president was compounded by Kennedy's fumbling answer to a question posed by CBS' Roger Mudd: Why do you want to be president?
"Well, it's um, you know you have to come to grips with the different issues that, ah, we're facing," Kennedy said. "I mean, we can, we have to deal with each of the various questions of the economy, whether it's in the area of energy ..."
He bowed out of the race after getting roundly beaten by Carter in the primaries and losing a rules battle at the Democratic convention. Later, when asked to assess the campaign, he replied: "Well, I learned to lose, and for a Kennedy that's hard."
Kennedy married Virginia Joan Bennett, known as Joan, in 1958. They divorced in 1982. In 1992, he married Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie. His survivors include a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen; two sons, Edward Jr. and Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island; and two stepchildren, Caroline and Curran Raclin.
In 1991, Kennedy roused his nephew William Kennedy Smith and his son Patrick from bed to go out for drinks while staying at the family's Palm Beach, Fla., estate. Later that night, a woman Smith met at a bar accused him of raping her at the home.
Smith was acquitted, but the senator's carousing -- and testimony about him wandering about the house in his shirttails and no pants -- further damaged his reputation.
Kennedy offered a mea culpa in a speech at Harvard that October, recognizing "my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life."
Later on, his second wife appeared to have a calming influence on him, helping him rehabilitate his image.
Kennedy's family life has been marked by illness.
Edward Jr. lost a leg to bone cancer in 1973 at age 12. Kara had a cancerous tumor removed from her lung in 2003. In 1988, Patrick had a noncancerous tumor pressing on his spine removed. He has also struggled with mental problems and addiction and announced in June that he was re-entering rehab.
In 2005, the senator's ex-wife underwent surgery for breast cancer. She has also battled alcoholism.
Kennedy's memoir, "True Compass," is set to be published in the fall.