Kennedy: Always in the public spotlight
DAVID ESPO,AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — In the quiet of a Capitol elevator, one of Edward M. Kennedy's fellow senators asked whether the Massachusetts senator had plans for a family Thanksgiving away from the nation's capital. No, he said shaking his head in reply, and mentioned something about visiting his brothers' gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery.
In his half-century in the public glare, Kennedy was, above all, heir to a legacy — as well as a hero to liberals, a foil to conservatives, a legislator with few peers.
Alone of the Kennedy men of his generation, he lived to comb gray hair, as the Irish poet had it. It was a blessing and a curse, as he surely knew, and assured that his defeats and human foibles as well as many triumphs played out in public at greater length than his brothers ever experienced.
He was the only Kennedy brother to run for the White House and lose. His brother John was president when he was assassinated in 1963 a few days before Thanksgiving; Robert fell to a gunman in mid-campaign five years later. An older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed piloting a plane in World War II.
Runner-up in a two-man race for the Democratic nomination in 1980, this Kennedy closed out his failed candidacy with a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many in a packed Madison Square Garden.
"For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end," he said. "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."
He was 48, older than any of his brothers at the time of their deaths. He lived nearly three more decades, before succumbing to a brain tumor late Tuesday at age 77.
That convention speech was a political summons, for sure. But to what?
Kennedy made plans to run for president again in 1984 before deciding against it. By 1988, his moment had passed and he knew it.
He turned his public energies toward his congressional career, now judged one of the most accomplished in the history of the Senate.
"I'm a Senate man and a leader of the institution," he said more than a year ago in an Associated Press interview. He left his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to pass Congress over a span of decades. Health care, immigration, civil rights, education and more. Republicans and Democrats alike lamented his absence as they struggled inconclusively in recent month with President Barack Obama's health care legislation.
He was in the front ranks of Democrats in 1987 who torpedoed one of President Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominees. "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught about evolution," he said at the time.
It was a single sentence that catalogued many of the issues he — and Democrats — devoted their careers to over the second half of the 20th century.
A postscript: More than a decade later, President Clinton nominated a former Kennedy aide, Stephen Breyer, to the high court. He was confirmed easily.
There were humiliations along the way, drinking and womanizing, coupled with the triumphs that the Kennedy image-makers were always polishing. After the 1980 presidential campaign, Camelot took another hit when he divorced. He later remarried, happily.
In later years came grumbling from fellow Democrats that his political touch had failed him, and that he was too eager to strike a deal with President George W. Bush on education and Medicare.
"I believe a president can make a difference," he said over and over in that campaign of 1980, at a time the country was suffering from crushing combination of high interest rates, inflation and unemployment.
But it wasn't necessary to be a president to make a difference, or to try.
He once startled a Republican senator's aide, tracking her down by phone in Poland, part of an attempt to complete a bipartisan compromise.
For years, he left the Capitol once a week to read to a student at a nearby public school as part of a literacy program.
When a longtime Senate reporter fell terminally ill, Kennedy dispatched one of his watercolors to her room in a nursing home, and cheered her with chatty phone calls.
Kennedy took up painting in earnest after a plane crash that broke his back in the mid-1960s and led to a lengthy convalescence. Much of his work hangs in his Senate office, several seascapes or images of sailboats of the type he piloted in the waters off Cape Cod.
The walls of other rooms are filled with political and personal memorabilia, family photographs or letters or some combination of the two that hint at the passage of time and power.
In one room hangs a photo showing Kennedy and his siblings and parents in a family portrait taken in the 1930s, at a time their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was U.S. ambassador to England.
In another hangs a plaque from the USS John F. Kennedy, the Navy vessel commissioned in 1968 and named for the slain president.
In another, the letter he wrote his mother, Rose, teasingly accusing her of having covered up a deficiency in math. No, she wrote back firmly in pencil, she always got an A.
"To Dad. Thank you for helping me get ahold of that first rung," wrote his son, Patrick, after winning a seat in the Rhode Island Legislature in 1990. The parent had dispatched aides to Providence to help assure victory for the child, now an eighth-term member of Congress.
There were other, far more public ways that Kennedy became the family standard bearer.
Robert Kennedy had spoken of the assassinated president at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Four years later, he, too, was dead, and this time the last surviving brother delivered the eulogy.
"My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," his voice trembled at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. "He should 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."
A generation later, John Kennedy Jr., who had been a toddler when his father was in the White House, died in a small plane crash off Martha's Vineyard. This eulogy invoked the words of William Butler Yeats, the poet: "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair. But like his father, he had every gift but the gift of years."
"Thank you my friend for your many courtesies. If the world only knew," reads a letter hanging on one wall of the office. It came from Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, once the Senate's top Republican.
As the most prominent liberal of his day, Kennedy was long an easy and popular target for Republicans. The automobile accident that resulted in the death of a young Pennsylvania woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drew snickers both before and after it shadowed his presidential campaign in 1980. Kennedy was driving the car in the accident at Chappaquiddick.
It is a cliche, yet true, that if his name was invaluable in Democratic fundraising, conservatives long ago discovered they could generate cash simply by telling donors they were doing battle with Kennedy.
Kennedy understood that, and knew how to turn it to his own advantage.
When a Moral Majority fundraising appeal somehow arrived at his office one day in the early 1980s, word leaked to the public, and the conservative group issued an invitation for him to come to Liberty Baptist College if he was ever in the neighborhood.
Pleased to accept, was the word from Kennedy.
"So I told Jerry (Falwell) and he almost turned white as a sheet," said Cal Thomas, then an aide to the conservative leader.
Dinner at the Falwell home was described as friendly.
Desert was a political sermon on tolerance, delivered by the liberal from Massachusetts.
"I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly?" Kennedy said from the podium that night. "There are those who do, and their own words testify to their intolerance."
More than a quarter-century later, he was still eager to make a difference. At a critical point in the 2008 presidential race, he endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, then embarked on an ambitious schedule of campaign appearances.
He cast his endorsement in terms that linked Obama to the Kennedys.
"There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier," he said.
"He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party," Kennedy said.
"And John Kennedy replied: 'The world is changing. The old ways will not do. ... It is time for a new generation of leadership.'"
That endorsement came a few months before the seizure that signaled the presence of a deadly brain tumor. There were memorable public moments ahead, a surprise visit to the Senate to cast the decisive vote on a Medicare bill and, before that, a turn at the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
"As I look ahead, I am strengthened by family and friendship," he said there last summer. "So many of you have been with me in the happiest days and the hardest days. Together we have known success and seen setbacks, victory and defeat.
"But we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world," he said. "And I pledge to you, I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the United States Senate when we begin the great test."
His time in the Senate was growing short, though. He smiled broadly as he took his seat outdoors at Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, then suffered a seizure a few hours later at a luncheon inside the capital.
"He was there when the Voting Rights Act passed" in the mid-1960s, the nation's first black president said moments later in his remarks. "And so I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now a part of me is with him. And I think that's true for all of us."
Generations of aides recall Kennedy telling them the biggest mistake of his career was turning down a deal that President Richard M. Nixon offered for universal health care. It seemed not generous enough at the time. Having missed the opportunity then, Kennedy spent the rest of his career hoping for an elusive second chance.
Now, some Democrats wonder privately if the party can learn from that lesson, and take what is achievable rather than risk everything by reaching for what it uncertain. Republicans and Democrats alike say Kennedy's absence has affected the debate on Obama's signature issue, with unknown consequences.
It was the issue that motivated him even after he was no longer able to travel to the Capitol to cast a vote. He called it "the cause of my life."
And in July, in a reflection on his own mortality, he worried that his precarious health might mean Massachusetts would have only one senator for a brief while, and Democrats would be handicapped as they tried to pass health care legislation.
After 47 years in the Senate — in a seat held by his brother before him — Kennedy urged a change in state law so the governor could appoint a temporary replacement "should a vacancy occur."
BOSTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate and haunted bearer of the Camelot torch after two of his brothers fell to assassins' bullets, has died at his home in Hyannis Port after battling a brain tumor. He was 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 50½ years and counting) and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who put in nearly 47½ 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.