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Sen. Edward Kennedy Dies at 77; A Towering Presence in the Senate 1932-2009

Senator Ted Kennedy Dies of Brain Cancer at 77.

For older people and the less fortunate in America, Edward M. Kennedy was the fighter who never quit, the voice that never wavered, the power that was true to the politician’s highest ideals of service. He came from a haunted, privileged family, and his life was beset by tragic personal behavior that probably cost him the U.S. presidency. But as the senator from Massachusetts, Kennedy worked with diligence and passion, and he did so for four-and-a-half decades.

Afflicted for months with a malignant brain tumor, Kennedy in his last hours worked off the Senate floor through his staff to influence health care reform, which he vowed long ago to bring about in his lifetime. When he died Tuesday night, at age 77, he left a legacy that will touch all Americans for generations.

“Senator Kennedy was more than an activist—he was a hero,” said A. Barry Rand, AARP CEO. “He was a champion for all Americans, especially those whose voices lacked strength.” Older Americans will remember Kennedy, Rand said, “for the retirement security he protected, for the health care coverage he expanded and for challenging everyone to volunteer to make this country better.”

Medicare, Meals on Wheels, Social Security

“The test of every great civilization is how it cares for its elderly,” Kennedy once said, and older Americans benefited from his push for the Meals on Wheels and Medicare programs.

Throughout his career he remained one of the Senate’s staunchest supporters of Social Security. Because he opposed the coverage gap in the prescription drug benefit, he voted against Medicare Part D. But he spent so much time and energy creating the benefit that his allies still count it as one of his victories. Even as his cancer progressed, Kennedy fought to close the “doughnut hole” in Part D, which leaves some older Americans without prescription drug coverage.

In 2008, weakened by cancer, he made an emotional appearance in the Senate to vote for a bill that would blunt scheduled cuts of Medicare payments to physicians. “I return to the Senate today to keep a promise to our senior citizens,” Kennedy said, “and that’s to protect Medicare. Win, lose or draw, I wasn’t going to take the chance that my vote could make the difference.” Members agreed and the bill passed.

In other areas, Kennedy compiled a monumental record of legislation that included bills on civil rights, health care, education and immigration. Through his bills he helped raise the minimum wage, gave clear rights to the disabled, ensured the privacy of medical and insurance records, and established a federal cancer research program that has quadrupled the amount of money spent fighting the disease.

But throughout his Senate career, his passion was health care, and his absence from the extended and bitter negotiations to overhaul the health care system in 2008 and 2009 was critical. “No person in that institution is indispensable,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in August. “But Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I’ve known in the Senate because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really is the essence of successful negotiations. So it’s huge that he’s absent, not only because of my personal affection for him. But because I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today.”

Tragic family history

Edward Kennedy was born Feb. 22, 1932, in Brookline, Mass., the youngest of nine children of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Initially, not much was expected of the skinny kid the family called Teddy. But one shattering tragedy after another finally forced this fourth and final Kennedy brother onto the national stage.

His oldest brother, Joe, died in a plane crash in World War II. The next made it to the White House, but President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Then in 1968, brother Robert Kennedy was murdered during his campaign for the presidency. Attention immediately turned that year to the youngest brother, who many assumed would step up next, carrying on the Kennedy political tradition. But what outsiders failed to grasp was that the national tragedy had devastated the Kennedy family as well. Kennedy’s sister Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948. She was the Marquess of Hartington. His sister Rosemary was mentally disabled and institutionalized for most of her life. She died in 2005.

And Edward Kennedy’s family role was at least as important as his political one. He became father figure to more than a dozen fatherless Kennedy children, and the role of “Uncle Teddy” took precedence.

In the Senate

But public service was never far behind. Kennedy was elected to the Senate in a 1962 special election, barely 30, the legal age to serve, over opponents who insisted that if his name had been “Edward Moore” instead of “Edward Moore Kennedy,” he would have lacked the qualifications to be seriously considered. Instead, he flourished in the Senate, and it was to become his highest calling.

Adam Clymer, a former New York Times reporter who wrote a definitive book about Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, said Kennedy initially functioned well in the Senate partly because, as the youngest of nine children, “he was adaptive to an institution run by elders to get things done. And the elders always liked him.” Senior senators James O. Eastland, D-Miss., and Richard Russell, D-Ga., both powerful Southern conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s, took to the young liberal Kennedy. “They did favors for him, and they enjoyed his company,” Clymer said.

At home

But while his senatorial career was taking off, his personal life was plummeting. He and his wife, Joan, whom he married in 1958, and with whom he had three children, were having marital difficulties, and Kennedy was often seen at social functions without her. Apart for years, they finally divorced in 1982.


In 1969, after a night of partying with a group of women who had worked for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Kennedy drove his car off the narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island across the water from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, one of the women at the party, died. Kennedy left the accident that night and did not report it to police until the next morning. Kennedy said he was dazed, confused and exhausted by his repeated diving attempts to rescue Kopechne. He was convicted merely of “leaving the scene of an accident.” But his story had many holes, skepticism abounded and the accident derailed his presidential hopes for 1972 and thereafter.

His winning political strategies

His personal life in ruins, he immersed himself in the work of the Senate. There he learned that bills that were only half steps could be important because once a program was established, he could always come back and “perfect” it.

David Nexon, Kennedy’s senior health policy adviser, who worked for him for 22 years, describes his methods as taking a Democratic objective like the Americans With Disabilities Act or health insurance portability, and first whipping up public support for it by generating press attention. Then, he would get Democrats together on the outlines of a bill. Finally he would find Republican support, even a Republican to take the lead, and work from there. Getting a member of the GOP was key. 

Working with Republicans

On the 1996 Kennedy-Kassebaum health insurance portability bill Kennedy approached Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., because he knew she was interested in the issue. They cut a deal and the bill passed. On the disability rights act, Kennedy worked with former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., himself a disabled veteran, to get the bill passed. Dole, no friend of government mandates, knew the need was there for the disabled. The result was the law that produced curb cuts, mandatory bathroom access for wheelchairs, and handicapped parking spaces. The day the bill passed the Senate in 1989, Kennedy was backslapping members of the coalition who worked for the bill. Dole cried.

On the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (that provides health coverage to children of families with modest means), Nexon says, Kennedy had one of his staff members sing for Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as part of his efforts to bring Hatch into the coalition. Hatch and Kennedy were close friends, despite being on opposite sides of the political field, and Kennedy knew Hatch wrote songs. Kennedy had Nick Littlefield sing one of Hatch’s pieces as Hatch played the music. “There was a lot of singing going on,” Nexon recalls. The Hatch-Kennedy SCHIP bill, which extended health care for 11 million children, went on to pass. “The goal was to get legislative accomplishment,” Nexon says. “It doesn’t mean he would settle for something that wasn’t an improvement over the status quo, but he was not an all or nothing kind of guy.”

No answer to the question

That was never more evident than in 1980 when he began a fumbling run for the presidency, still dogged by Chappaquiddick and unsure of himself. He struggled to answer reporter Roger Mudd’s question, “Why do you want to be president?” Since he seemed not to know, he fell out of favor. His challenge to sitting president Jimmy Carter fizzled, leading to an awkward chase around the podium at the Democratic convention that year as Carter tried to find Kennedy for the traditional arms-raised unity pose.

But that failed run, and a decision not to challenge incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984 (his family didn’t want him to), seemed to convince Kennedy that his role was in the Senate.

Workhorse senator

And there, Kennedy kept pushing, even in victory. In 2007, for example, he was at a press conference celebrating House passage of a bill to increase the federal minimum wage when he turned to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and said it was now time to start working on the next increase. A stunned Miller pointed out that the celebration wasn’t even over yet. “I know,” Kennedy said at the time. “But we’ve got to move on this.”

And despite his personal struggles, he became a workhorse to go along with his show-horse celebrity. Each night, aides packed a briefcase full of memos and documents for him to read, and, inevitably, they came back the next morning to find notes in the margins and questions attached.

Charmed by children

His personal love was children. In the words of the late Helen Dewar, a longtime Senate correspondent for theWashington Post, Kennedy “could never pass up a child.” He proved it in 1993, when the Senate held a rare Saturday session on a tax bill and one working reporter-mom was forced to cover a high-level senatorial meeting in the majority leader’s office carrying a 2-year-old on her hip. The senators were not planning to talk to reporters on the way into the meeting, but Kennedy stopped to greet the 2-year-old anyway and was drawn into a question-and-answer session. A nearby photographer took one shot, which the senator later inscribed, to the toddler, saying, “Can I have your vote for national health insurance?”

It was children who led to his second marriage in 1992. He was reintroduced to a family friend, Vicki Reggie, who was divorced and had two children. Their first “date” involved trick-or-treating with the kids, Vicki told Clymer for his book. “She told me that he told her how much he enjoyed having children around the house again,” Clymer said.

Kennedy had three children with Joan: Kara Ann Kennedy Allen, a news producer; Edward Moore Kennedy Jr., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. His stepchildren are Curran Raclin, born in 1983, and Caroline Raclin, born in 1985, Vicki’s children from her previous marriage.

Lived to comb gray hair

When he spoke at the funeral of his nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr., in July 1999, he said that the ultimate tragedy of John’s death was that he would not live to “comb gray hair,” as the poet William Butler Yeats wrote. Ted Kennedy lived to comb his.

It was, perhaps, prescient that Kennedy, in talking about not reaching the presidency, told of how his work could continue after him. At the 1980 Democratic convention, he rallied the liberal cause to follow in his outsize footsteps: “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.”

Washington-based reporter Elaine S. Povich has covered Sen. Kennedy and the Senate since 1983.

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