By Calvin Woodward and Glen Johnson
HYANNIS PORT, Mass. — The greatest heights eluded Ted Kennedy over a lifetime of achievement and pain. No presidency. No universal health care, chief among his causes.
Instead, Kennedy built his Washington monument stone by stone, his imprint distinct on the Senate’s most important works over nearly half a century. He toiled across the Potomac River from the graveyard of his fallen brothers.
The last of the Kennedys who fascinated the nation with their ambition, style, idealism, tragedies — and sometimes sheer recklessness — Edward Moore Kennedy died late Tuesday night at 77. A black shroud and vase of white roses sat Wednesday on his Senate desk, which John Kennedy had used before him.
So dropped the final curtain on “Camelot,” the already distant era of the Kennedy dynasty.
The Massachusetts senator’s extended political family of fellow Democrats and rival Republicans, steeled for his death since his brain-tumor diagnosis a year ago yet still jarred by it, joined in mourning. Kennedy was the Senate’s dominant liberal and one of its legendary dealmakers.
Just last year he jumped into a fractious Democratic presidential nomination fight to side with Barack Obama, giving the Illinois senator a boost that had the air of a family anointment.
“For his family, he was a guardian,” Obama said Wednesday. “For America, he was a defender of a dream.”
The president, vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, was awakened after 2 a.m. and told of Kennedy’s death. He spoke soon after with the senator’s widow, Victoria, and ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings.
Kennedy will be buried Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery after a funeral Mass in Boston. He will lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston before that.
Also buried at Arlington, the military cemetery overlooking the capital city, are John and Robert Kennedy; John Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline; their baby son, Patrick, who died after two days, and their stillborn child.
To Americans and much of the world, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of the nation’s most glamorous political family. Of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith is the only one alive.
To senators of both parties, he was one of their own.
“Even when you expect it, even when you know it’s coming, in this case it hurts a great deal,” said Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Politicians also calculated the consequences for Obama’s push for expanded health coverage. For several months, at least, Kennedy’s death will deprive the Democrats of a vote that could prove crucial for his signature cause of health reform.
His illness had sidelined him from an intense debate that would have found him at the core any other time. Conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, his improbable Republican partner on children’s health insurance, volunteerism, student aid and more, said the Senate probably would have had a health care deal by now if Kennedy had been healthy enough to work with him.
“Iconic, larger than life,” Hatch said of his friend. “We were like fighting brothers.”
He was the last of the famous Kennedy brothers: John the assassinated president, Robert the assassinated senator and presidential candidate, Joseph the aviator killed in action in World War II when Ted was 12.
He lost his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, less than two weeks ago, saw the bright promise of nephew John F. Kennedy Jr. end in a plane crash in 1999 and struggled with excesses of his own until he became a settled elder statesman.
Like Obama, Kennedy was a master orator. But the words that live for the ages seem to be those he uttered in tragedy or defeat.
Older Americans remember his eulogy of Robert Kennedy, when he asked history not to idealize his brother but remember him “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.”
Remembered, too, is his speech conceding the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination to the incumbent Jimmy Carter. “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 said.
By then, his hopes of reaching the White House had been damaged by his behavior a decade earlier in the scandal known as Chappaquiddick.
On the night of July 18, 1969, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha’s Vineyard, and swam to safety while companion Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the car. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident; a judge said his actions probably contributed to the young woman’s death. He received a suspended sentence and probation.
Kennedy’s legislative legacy includes health insurance for children of the working poor, the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, family leave and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He was also key to passage of the No Child Left Behind Education law and a Medicare drug benefit for the elderly, both championed by Republican President George W. Bush.
In the Senate, Republicans respected and often befriended him. But his essential liberalism marked him as a lightning rod, too. He proved a handy fundraising foil motivating Republicans to open their wallets to fight anything he stood for.
In 1980, Kennedy’s task of dislodging a president of his own party was compounded by his fumbling answer to a question posed by CBS’ Roger Mudd: Why do you want to be president?
“Well, I’m, uh, were I to, to make the, the announcement, to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country,” he began.
It’s a question that all savvy politicians ever since make sure won’t catch them unprepared.
In his later years, Kennedy cut a barrel-chested profile, with a swath of white hair, a booming voice and a thick, widely imitated Boston accent. He coupled fist-pumping floor speeches with charm and formidable negotiating skills.
“I think that once he realized he was never going to be president — that that was not the legacy he had to follow — he really worked at becoming the best senator he possibly could,” Leahy said. “And he did.”
He was first elected to the Senate in 1962, taking the seat that his brother John had occupied before winning the White House, and he served longer than all but two senators in history.
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 a decisive vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He made sure he was there again in January to see his former Senate colleague sworn in as president but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
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.
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 non-cancerous tumor pressing on his spine removed. He also has struggled with depression and addiction and recently spent time at an addiction treatment center.