Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who carried aloft the torch of a Massachusetts dynasty and a liberal ideology to the citadel of Senate power, but whose personal and political failings may have prevented him from realizing the ultimate prize of the presidency, died at his home in Hyannis Port last night after a battle with brain cancer.
He was 77.
“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,’’ his family said in a statement. “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. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them without him.’’
Overcoming a history of family tragedy, including the assassinations of a brother who was president and another who sought the presidency, Senator Kennedy seized 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 an 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.
Senator Kennedy’s White House aspirations may have been doomed by his actions on the night he drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 and failed to promptly report the accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked for his brother Robert, died. When Kennedy nonetheless later sought to wrest the presidential nomination from an incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, he failed. 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.’’
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.
“He died the way he lived,’’ said a longtime Kennedy staffer, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the moment, breaking up with emotion during the interview. “Fully in the moment, with incredible courage. He knew exactly what was going on. He wasn’t afraid. And given everything that he had been through his entire life, was always optimistic and knew that this country’s best days always [were] ahead.’’
Plans have already been made for the funeral, which will take place in Massachusetts, the aide said, and President Obama would be expected to attend.
“Without question Senator Kennedy was the most accomplished and effective legislator for economic and social justice in the history of our country,’’ said Paul G. Kirk, Jr., a former Kennedy aide who is chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. “He was the most thoughtful and genuinely considerate friend I have known.’’
“He taught us to persevere and carry on in the face of loss and adversity,’’ Kirk added. “And we owe it to him to do the same at this time.’’
In a statement, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said, “The Kennedy family and the Senate family have together lost our patriarch. My thoughts, and those of the entire United States Senate, are with Vicki, Senator Kennedy’s children, his many nieces and nephews, and his entire family. . . . It was the thrill of my lifetime to work with Ted Kennedy.’’
Senator Kennedy’s congressional career was remarkable not only for its accomplishments, but for its length of 47 years. Massachusetts voters installed him in the Senate nine times – starting with a special election in 1962. Since the Senate opened in 1789, only Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina served longer.
“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. 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 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.
The ninth child of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, Feb. 22, 1932. His brother Jack, then at the Choate School in Connecticut, wrote to his parents, asking to be godfather and urging the new arrival to be baptized George Washington Kennedy.
The parents agreed to the first request but named the child Edward Moore Kennedy. Part of his 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 midlevel grades, including in Spanish, a subject that would trouble him 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 if they showed evidence of “constructive and responsible citizenship.’’
The incident would become the first of several episodes creating public doubts about his character.
After two years in the Army, Ted Kennedy returned to Harvard, graduating from there in 1956 and the University of Virginia Law School three years later.
At a Kennedy family event at Manhattanville College, the alma mater of his sisters, he met Joan Bennett. They married in 1958, the same year he managed the Senate re-election campaign of his brother John. The outcome was not in doubt; Ted’s assignment was to steer the incumbent to a victory big enough to impress national party bosses. The victory margin was 857,000, the highest in the Commonwealth’s history.
After JFK won the presidency in 1960, he 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.
John Kennedy persuaded Governor Foster Furcolo to fill his vacant Senate seat by appointing Benjamin A. Smith II, the mayor of Gloucester who was a friend of the president at Harvard. 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. His 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 primary, he faced Attorney General Edward J. McCormack Jr., the nephew of US House Speaker John W. McCormack. At a debate in South Boston, McCormack ridiculed the young Ted, saying the senatorial job “should be merited, not inherited.’’ Pointing his finger at his opponent, 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. His silence created a wave of sympathy. He went on to win 69 percent of the primary vote and then to defeat George Lodge, the son of the former Republican senator, in the general election.
Even with a brother in the White House and another 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 sought “more for Massachusetts’’ by pursuing fishery development and a Cambridge space research center.
Kennedy’s immediate family grew with the birth of Patrick Joseph Kennedy in 1967, joining Kara Anne and Edward Jr.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Senator Kennedy was presiding over the chamber, 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 assassination, Senator Kennedy and his sister, Eunice, flew to Hyannis Port to deliver the news to their father. Joseph P. Kennedy had suffered a stroke in 1961 and could not speak or walk.
In 1964, eager to win a full six-year term, Senator Kennedy planned to visit Springfield to accept the endorsement of the Democratic state convention. On the night of June 19, after casting votes on final passage of a civil rights bill, Senator Kennedy and the convention’s keynote speaker, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, boarded a private plane en route to Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.
In heavy fog, the aircraft crashed in an orchard, killing the pilot and a Kennedy aide. Senator Kennedy sustained three broken vertebrae, fractured ribs, a punctured lung, and internal hemorrhaging.
After a six-month recuperation, Senator Kennedy was released, but back injuries would cause him pain for the rest of his life. He was reelected with 74 percent of the vote.
In that same election, voters of New York elected Robert F. Kennedy as their senator. The siblings teased each other frequently, but seldom diverged in their liberal voting patterns. Robert had seniority in the family and was a former US attorney general, but Edward took the lead on legal issues such as repealing the poll tax.
In October 1965, Senator Kennedy made his first visit to South Vietnam, a nation not yet dominating the news but one that would profoundly affect the United States, President Johnson, and the Kennedys.
By 1967, antiwar rallies were proliferating and on Nov. 30, Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota agreed, after Robert Kennedy declined, to challenge Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries. After McCarthy won 42 percent of the New Hampshire vote and before Johnson would bow out, Robert Kennedy 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.’’ Senator Kennedy became the surrogate father of his brothers’ children and the patriarchal figure in the growing clan.
Vietnam dominated the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as did speculation about Senator 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 a few weeks before the convention.
But the Capitol, not the White House, seemed the focus of his intentions. Senator Kennedy surprised many by running instead for majority whip in 1968. By a 31-26 vote, he defeated the incumbent, another son of a political dynasty, Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana.
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.’’ Senator Kennedy mobilized Democrats against what he called the “folly’’ of an antiballistic missile system proposed by President Nixon. 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, Senator Kennedy arrived on an island that his actions would make notorious. On Chappaquiddick, across a narrow inlet from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, six young women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign gathered for a reunion. Senator Kennedy’s marriage was already troubled, and he had been seen in the company of glamorous women. But the women at Chappaquiddick were all respected political operatives.
Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, had worked for RFK’s Senate office. A passenger in a car driven by Ted Kennedy, she drowned after the car skidded off a bridge. Senator Kennedy failed to report the accident for several hours. The crash gave him a minor concussion and a major personal and political crisis.
As American astronauts walked on the moon, fulfilling a JFK pledge, Chappaquiddick 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 and speechwriters, he gave a televised speech a week later. He praised Kopechne and wondered aloud “whether some awful curse did actually hang over the Kennedys,’’ then asked Massachusetts voters whether he should resign. They replied overwhelmingly: No.
His critics snarled that Senator Kennedy “got away with it’’ at Chappaquiddick, but the price he paid was high. Voters expected quick and cool judgment from presidents. Senator Kennedy, in effect, disqualified himself when he confessed on television that he should have alerted police immediately.
He returned to his work in the Senate and in December 1969 began a long campaign “to move now to establish a comprehensive national health care 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 unseated Senator Kennedy as majority whip by a 31-24 vote. Years later, Senator Kennedy thanked Byrd because the loss made him concentrate on committee work in health care, refugees, civil rights, the judiciary, and foreign policy, areas in which he would leave a lasting imprint.
As he was rebuilding his stature in the fall of 1973, Senator Kennedy and his wife, Joan, received devastating news. Their 12-year-old son, Edward Jr., had cancer and his leg had to be amputated. Although Ted Jr. persevered, the crisis cooled the senator’s ambitions about running for president in 1976.
The election of 1976 would bring a Democrat back into the White House. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, however, was not a Kennedy Democrat. The ideological divide between the two was profound. Senator Kennedy thought Carter’s health care programs were timid. The president sometimes resented Senator Kennedy’s celebrity status, especially when foreign leaders consulted with the senator.
When the Democrats held a mid-term conference in Memphis in December 1978, it was 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 to a group of Democratic congressmen: If Senator Kennedy did challenge him in the 1980 election, “I’ll whip his ass.’’
Shortly before he announced that challenge, however, Senator Kennedy stumbled in an interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd. The commentator’s question seemed simple: Why was he running for president.
“Well, I’m – were I to make the announcement and to run,’’ Senator Kennedy said, “the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is – there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world; there’s the greatest educated population in the world; greatest technology of any country in the world.’’
His responses to questions about Chappaquiddick sounded rehearsed, and the interview was widely considered a disaster. He would not recover.
Three days later, on Nov. 7, 1979, the 47-year-old senator formally declared his candidacy, saying he was “compelled by events and by my commitment to public life.’’
“For many months, we have been sinking into crisis. Yet we hear no clear summons from the center of power,’’ he declared, standing on the stage of Faneuil Hall, before a giant painting of Daniel Webster, a longtime US senator from Massachusetts who never became president.
Unable to persuade Democrats to abandon a Democratic president, Senator Kennedy won only 10 of the 35 presidential primaries. In July, he reluctantly endorsed Carter at the Democratic National Convention in New York, offering his own anthem to the Democratic Party. He cited Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and those he had met at “the closed factories and the stalled assembly lines.’’ After congratulating Carter, he added, “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, Senator Kennedy was in the Senate minority for the first time. But he was accustomed to reaching across the aisle for support. Throughout his career, Senator Kennedy’s name animated Republican fund-raising efforts. In reality, the GOP’s bete noire cooperated with party leaders from Barry Goldwater to John McCain, a list that included conservative stalwarts Robert Dole, Orrin Hatch, and Alan Simpson.
Senator 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: “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 the 1960s, the young senator had learned a lesson from Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, who said of the Senate, “you measure accomplishments not by climbing mountains, but by climbing molehills.’’
In the 1980s, those molehills amounted to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and an overhaul of federal job training (co-sponsored by a freshman senator from Indiana, Dan Quayle). With his Massachusetts colleagues from the House, Speaker O’Neill and Representative Edward P. Boland, he worked against Reagan administration policies in Central America.
In 1985, Senator 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.’’
“When he finally lifted the curse from himself that Kennedys had to be president, he truly became a legislator,’’ said Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who served 18 years in the Senate with Kennedy. “In fact, he immersed himself in legislation.’’
Others in the Kennedy clan would join him in such efforts. In 1986, he watched with pride as his nephew Joseph won the seat vacated by O’Neill and in 1994 as his son, Patrick, won a congressional seat from Rhode Island.
Not all family matters, however, 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 Senator 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.
Senator Kennedy’s reputation as a roustabout lingered until, years after he and Joan divorced in 1982, Senator Kennedy met Victoria Reggie, a lawyer and divorced mother of two who was 22 years younger than the senator. They wed in 1992 and began a partnership that brought equilibrium and focus to his life.
In 1994, when Republicans would recapture the House for the first time in 40 years, no Democrat was safe, even the leading lion of liberalism. A Republican businessman, Mitt Romney, captured the attention of some Bay Staters until, in a Faneuil Hall debate, Senator 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.
In Washington, he continued to do battle with Republicans on issues, subtle and unsubtle. In the latter category was one of his favorites, raising the minimum wage, a perennial struggle because its recipients lacked the active lobbies that support business interests.
As he had done for more than half his time in Washington, Senator Kennedy launched his crusade on behalf of those who daily do the menial work that make everyone else’s day cleaner, brighter, and safer. “The minimum wage,’’ he often said, “was one of the first and is still one of the best antipoverty programs we have.’’
During the administration of Republican George W. Bush, Senator Kennedy led the Senate’s antiwar faction as the president persuaded Congress to authorize the use of military force against Iraq.
But Senator Kennedy displayed a willingness to be helpful when he thought Bush was right. He was a force behind Bush’s chief domestic policy achievement in its first term, No Child Left Behind, the sweeping education bill that mandated testing to measure student progress. When Bush introduced him at the bill’s signing ceremony, 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 cancer diagnosis, Senator Kennedy surprised much of the political world by endorsing Senator Barack Obama for president over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The endorsement was seen as a passing of the Kennedy torch to the man aspiring to be the nation’s first black 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, even as his health declined; when members of Obama’s administration questioned the president’s decision to spend so much political capital on the seemingly intractable issue, Obama reportedly replied, “I promised Teddy.”