SACRAMENTO, CA – An “extraordinary leader,” “statesman,” and “never defeatist” are just a few of the many accolades given Sen. Edward Kennedy who succumbed to brain cancer Tuesday night. He was 77.
Kennedy’s family said that he died shortly before midnight Tuesday, at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, surrounded by family and friends.
In 2008, the senator was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. But he continued his work on Capitol Hill and gave a memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention one year ago, Aug. 25, 2008.
Kennedy, known as Ted or Teddy, was the youngest of four Kennedy brothers. His three older brothers were President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated five years later while campaigning for the presidency, and Joe Kennedy who died in combat during World War II.
On Aug. 11, Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, died. She was the mother of California’s First Lady Maria Shriver.
The Kennedy family released this statement:
“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 Kennedy family said in a statement. “He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it.”
The Kennedys have confirmed that the senator will lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston before his funeral Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica — known as the Mission Church — also in Boston on Saturday.
Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near his slain brothers.
Both the service and burial was private.
Kennedy’s Life as the Last Brother Standing
Kennedy, began his public life as the prodigal son of a political dynasty and ended as its respected patriarch.
Kennedy’s political career spanned five decades and continued even after his diagnosis with terminal brain cancer. After surgery to reduce the size of the tumor in June, 2008, the senator returned to Congress, determined to help President Obama enact health care reform legislation – a longtime Kennedy goal.
Kennedy called the goal of expanding access to healthcare “the cause of my life,” in an emotional and unexpected appearance before the Democratic National Convention just three months after his cancer surgery.
“Ted Kennedy’s dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a statement early Wednesday.
Although Kennedy never realized his dream of following his brother, president John F. Kennedy, into the White House, the Massachusetts Democrat became a towering figure in Washington who left his mark on every branch of government.
His early endorsement of Obama helped vault a relatively untested junior senator to the White House. As much as any president, Kennedy helped shape the Supreme Court from his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he served longer than any other senator in history.
In the Senate, Kennedy was the driving force behind dozens of landmark bills that changed the social fabric of the nation, expanding the availability of health care, education and housing and advancing the rights of immigrants, women, minorities, gays and the disabled.
In a 2007 speech to the Senate, where he was being honored for having cast his 15,000th vote, Kennedy said he devoted his career trying “to be a voice of what I call the march for progress in this nation.”
A gifted speaker and skilled legislator, his career was punctuated by a series of personal setbacks and humiliations – often of his own making. The most devastating came in 1969 when a car that Kennedy was driving hurtled off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, killing a young female passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy fled the scene and did not report his role in the accident until the next day.
Decades later, Kennedy still refused to discuss the incident, according to his biographer, Adam Clymer, who wrote Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography in 1999.
Though he disagreed with church leaders on the issues of abortion and gay rights, Kennedy was a devout Catholic who clung to his religion’s belief in the potential for human redemption.
Kennedy was the youngest of nine children born to Rose and Joseph Kennedy, a wealthy businessman who served as president Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain. At this outset of his career, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by the triumphs and tragedies of his overachieving older brothers Joseph, John and Robert.
Young “Teddy,” as he was known all his life, was expelled from Harvard in 1951 for cheating on a Spanish exam, but after two years in the Army, he re-enrolled. A tight end on the Harvard University football team, he attracted the notice of Green Bay Packers coach Lisle Blackbourn, who wrote a letter asking Kennedy about his interest in turning pro. Kennedy declined the offer, telling the coach he had plans to attend law school and to “go into another contact sport, politics.”
After earning his law degree from the University of Virginia and working on his brother’s presidential campaign, Kennedy entered the Senate as the result of blatant nepotism: When President Kennedy vacated his Massachusetts Senate seat for the White House, his youngest brother was two years shy of 30, the required constitutional age for senators. So the president arranged for a family friend to hold the seat and step down when the younger Kennedy was eligible to assume the seat.
Some senators were skeptical about whether the president’s kid brother was qualified to enter their exclusive club. “I did not particularly like him at the beginning. He did not like me,” Sen. Robert Byrd said in a speech just before Kennedy turned 75.
The two initially battled over legislation and leadership posts. Byrd ousted Kennedy as Democratic whip in 1971. But the West Virginian eventually was won over by Kennedy’s dedication to the Senate. On the day news broke of Kennedy’s cancer diagnosis, an anguished Byrd sobbed on the Senate floor, “Ted, Ted, my dear friend, I love you and I miss you.”
The unlikely bond that developed between the two underscored one of Kennedy’s most striking qualities: his ability to turn even ideological opposites into allies. A committed liberal known for his thundering oratory, Kennedy was also a quiet deal-maker who worked cooperatively with even the most conservative of Republicans.
He convinced former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., to confirm Stephen Breyer to the federal bench, putting the former Kennedy aide on a path that would take him to the Supreme Court. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, worked with Kennedy on funding for AIDS research and on children’s health insurance and wrote two songs in his honor.
Kennedy also helped President Bush win passage of No Child Left Behind, a landmark education overhaul. He partnered with Republican presidential nominee John McCain on immigration legislation.
The same Republicans who made Kennedy a whipping boy and fundraising tool on the campaign trail acknowledged him in the Senate as a friend. “He is famous among his colleagues in the Senate for his warmth, good humor and his simply astonishing ability and will to get things done,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said after Kennedy cast his 15,000th vote.
Kennedy’s career as a Senate statesman took off after he abandoned his dreams of the White House. He was drawn to the collegial, clubby Senate in ways that his more impatient brothers were not.
When Ted and Robert Kennedy served in the Senate, there was a “huge difference between the two brothers,” recalls Leon Panetta, an aide at the time to Sen. Thomas Kuchel, R-Calif. “Bobby was much more doing his own thing,” said Panetta, who later went on to become a congressman, White House chief of staff for president Bill Clinton, and CIA director under President Obama. “Teddy would work on legislation; he would work to get things done in the Senate.”
Nearly killed in a 1964 plane crash that left him with a permanently bad back, Kennedy used the five months that he was immobilized, waiting for his vertebrae to heal, to bone up on Senate issues and procedure.
Kennedy spent more than half his life in the slow-moving but tight-knit chamber, serving longer than all but two other senators, Byrd and Thurmond. He was elected nine times by his Massachusetts constituents, usually by overwhelming margins. Kennedy won his last Senate race, in 2006, with 69 percent of the vote.
He had three children, Edward Jr., Kara and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., with his first wife Joan, a statuesque blonde socialite who never adapted to the Kennedy family’s ferociously competitive and public lifestyle. The couple were divorced in 1982.
By 1991, Kennedy’s bachelor lifestyle was beginning to take a toll on his reputation and friends were worried.
After an Easter weekend of pub-crawling with his nephew, Will Smith, turned into a scandal when Smith was accused of raping a woman who returned to the Kennedy’s Palm Beach compound with him, Kennedy asked Senate colleagues to vouch for him. According to Clymer’s biography, Hatch told Kennedy “if you keep acting like this, I’m going to send the Mormon missionaries to you,” and Kennedy replied, “I’m just about ready for them.”
As it turned out, fate had a different rescue in store for Kennedy. In 1992, he married Victoria Reggie, and began to turn his life around. By the time of his death, he was widely respected as one of the Senate’s senior statesmen.
“Harry Truman used to say ‘If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,’ ” former senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, told USA TODAY earlier this month. “Ted came under a lot of heat – some of it of his own making – but he was not a quitter.”
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