Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the last surviving brother in a political dynasty and one of the most influential senators in history, died Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod after a year-long struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.
In nearly 50 years in the Senate, Kennedy served alongside 10 presidents — his brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy among them — compiling an impressive list of legislative achievements on health care, civil rights, education, immigration and more.
His only run for the White House ended in defeat in 1980. More than a quarter-century later, he handed then-Sen. Barack Obama an endorsement at a critical point in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, explicitly likening the young contender to President Kennedy.
To the American public, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of America’s most glamorous political family, father figure and, memorably, eulogist of an Irish-American clan plagued again and again by tragedy.
Kennedy’s death triggered an outpouring of superlatives, from Democrats and Republicans as well as foreign leaders.
“An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time,” Obama said in a written statement.
“For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts,” said Obama, vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast.
Kennedy’s 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.”
A few hours later, two vans left the family compound at Hyannis Port in pre-dawn darkness. Both bore hearse license plates — with the word “hearse” blacked out.
There was no immediate word on funeral arrangements. Two of Kennedy’s brothers, John and Robert, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada issued a statement that said, “It was the thrill of my lifetime to work with Ted Kennedy…..The liberal lion’s mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die.”
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said that her husband and Kennedy “could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another.”
Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962, taking the seat that his brother John had occupied before winning the White House, and served longer than all but two senators in history.
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. He sought the White House more than a decade later, lost the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, and bowed out 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.”
Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
He made a surprise return to the Capitol last summer to cast the decisive 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, but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
He also made a surprise and forceful appearance at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his own illness and said health care was the cause of his life. His death occurred precisely one year later, almost to the hour.
He was away from the Senate for much of this year, leaving Republicans and Democrats to speculate about the impact what his absence meant for the fate of Obama’s health care proposals.
Under state law, Kennedy’s successor will be chosen by special election. In his last known public act, the senator urged state officials to give Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick the power to name an interim replacement. But that appears unlikely, leaving Democrats in Washington with one less vote for the next several months as they struggle to pass Obama’s health care legislation.
His death came less than two weeks after that of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver on Aug. 11. Kennedy was not present for the funeral, an indication of the precariousness of his own health.
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.
“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.
Kennedy arrived at his place in the Senate after a string of family tragedies. 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. Years later, in 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash at age 38 along with his wife.
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 said: “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 “indef
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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