Kennedy spoke for the voiceless

The New York TimesAugust 27, 2009 

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a son of one of the most storied families in American politics, a man who knew triumph and tragedy in near-equal measure and who will be remembered as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate, died Tuesday night. He was 77.

The death was announced Wednesday morning in a statement by the Kennedy family.

"Edward M. Kennedy -- the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply -- died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port," the statement said.

President Barack Obama issued a statement acknowledging Kennedy's accomplishments. "His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives -- in seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education's promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just -- including myself."

Obama is scheduled to speak at a funeral Mass for Kennedy on Saturday in Boston. Kennedy had been in precarious health since he suffered a seizure in May 2008 at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. The next month he underwent brain surgery at Duke University Medical Center, where doctors declared the procedure successful without specifying what that meant for Kennedy's future.

The last brother

Kennedy was the last surviving brother of a generation of Kennedys that dominated American politics in the 1960s and that came to embody glamour, political idealism and untimely death.

Kennedy, who served 46 years as the most well-known Democrat in the Senate, longer than all but two other senators, was the only one of those brothers to die after reaching old age.

Two of them, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were felled by assassins' bullets in their 40s.

The eldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., died in 1944 at the age of 29 while on a risky World War II bombing mission.

Kennedy spent much of last year in treatment and recuperation, broken by occasional public appearances and a dramatic return to the Capitol last summer to cast a decisive vote on a Medicare bill.

He then electrified the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August with an unscheduled appearance and a speech that had delegates on their feet. Many were in tears.

A life of ups and downs

Kennedy was at or near the center of much of American history in the latter part of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. For much of his adult life, he veered from victory to catastrophe, winning every Senate election he entered but failing in his only try for the presidency; living through the sudden deaths of his brothers and three of his nephews; bearing responsibility for the drowning death on Chappaquiddick Island of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to his brother Robert.

Kennedy himself was almost killed in a 1964 plane crash, which left him with permanent back and neck problems.

He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., one of the institution's most devoted students, said of his longtime colleague, "Ted Kennedy would have been a leader, an outstanding senator, at any period in the nation's history."

Byrd is one of only two senators to have served longer in the chamber than Kennedy; the other was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

Born to one of the wealthiest American families, Kennedy spoke for the downtrodden in his public life while living the heedless private life of a playboy and a rake for many of his years.

A part of history

Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor. He was serving as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at his death.

Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fundraising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education law pushed by Bush in 2001. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Kennedy struggled for much of his life with his weight, with alcohol and with persistent tales of womanizing.

In an Easter break episode in 1991 in Palm Beach, Fla., he went out drinking with his son Patrick and a nephew, William Kennedy Smith, on the night that Smith was alleged to have raped a woman.

Smith was prosecuted in a lurid trial that fall but was ultimately acquitted.

Kennedy's personal life stabilized in 1992 with his marriage to Victoria Ann Reggie. His first marriage, to Joan Bennett Kennedy, ended in divorce in 1982 after 24 years.

Kennedy is survived by his wife, known as Vicki; two sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. of Branford, Conn., and U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island; a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen, of Bethesda, Md.; two stepchildren, Curran Raclin and Caroline Raclin, and four grandchildren.

Kennedy is also survived by a sister, Jean Kennedy Smith. On Aug. 11, his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died at 88.

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