After a year-long battle with brain cancer, Senator Ted Kennedy died Tuesday night. He was 77. Only two senators have served longer than Kennedy. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank says Kennedy is the most powerful man never to have been president.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Long after the lives of his brothers were cut short, Senator Edward Kennedy carried on their causes and made them his own. Kenney has died after a fight with brain cancer. He was 77 years old.
MONTAGNE: He spent the majority of his life in the United States Senate and year after year his legislation changed the country.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: Only two U.S. senators have served longer than Ted Kennedy and colleagues say none has attained more influence.
Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): He is clearly the most powerful man never to have been president in the United States' history.
SMITH: Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank.
Rep. FRANK: I don't think anybody comes close to him without having been the president, and he's had more power than a lot of presidents.
SMITH: It's especially impressive given that Kennedy's political career was essentially dismissed before it even began. Teddy grew up in the shadow of big brothers John and Bobby and was more into football than academics. When he first ran for Senate, even JFK and some of his closest advisors opposed the idea.
Mr. GERARD DOHERTY (Attorney): They didn't think he could win.
SMITH: Boston attorney Gerard Doherty helped Kennedy on that first campaign in 1962.
Mr. DOHERTY: There were increasingly hostile articles criticizing him for having no experience. Let him run for selectman, you know. He'd get that all the time.
SMITH: But Kennedy would go on to win that Senate race handily, as he did every one since. He grew into the job by working hard and learning everything he could. When a small plane crash left him bedridden in 1964, he used the time to cram on the issues and he campaigned by video from his hospital bed.
(Soundbite of campaign video)
Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Well, I'm coming along now. The doctors estimate that I'll be out of the hospital around Christmas time. I'm planning on Thanksgiving.
SMITH: That accident would leave Kennedy with a lifetime of back pain and a lifelong interest in the affordability of health care. In the hospital, Doherty says, Kennedy would grill him about his experience with tuberculosis.
Mr. DOHERTY: I remember one night we had this very almost intense conversation about how my father could afford my hospitalization, and he has said to me more than once that that's when he began to focus on the health problem.
SMITH: Four decades later, Kennedy would continue to push in between his own chemo treatments for health care reform.
Sen. KENNEDY: This is the cause of my life, that we will guarantee that every American - north, south, east, west, young, old - will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.
(Soundbite of cheering)
SMITH: While a passionately and ideologically committed liberal, Kennedy was also known for reaching across the aisle to partner with Republicans like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, he said, Orrin, I will help you. He said there are some things I can't do - you know, the unions, etc. - but he said, there are a lot of things I can. And you can go back in history and we've been a very active and successful team.
SMITH: For all his power, colleagues say Kennedy was atypically generous - for example, putting their names first on legislation they co-sponsored. Again, Congressman Frank.
Rep. FRANK: Nobody could have been more gracious, more inclusive in a business in which backbiting is a like major hobby. It is impressive how little of that is ever directed at him, and that's because of his personality, and he is somebody that his colleagues like when they could easily have grown to resent him. You know, there's a lot to be jealous about with the guy.
SMITH: The standard-bearer for what's been called America's royal family, Kennedy was in some ways larger than life, but at the same time he was undisputably human, his good and bad always subject to intense public scrutiny - from Chappaquiddick, when he drove his car off a bridge in 1969 and left behind the young campaign aide who drowned, to the infamous night in Palm Beach, Florida when he went out drinking with a nephew who would end up accused but then acquitted of raping a woman they met that night. But by the early '90s Kennedy had settled down, re-married, and turned a corner of sorts.
Sen. KENNEDY: …I recognize my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.
SMITH: Kennedy's personal troubles cost him politically. Chappaquiddick destroyed any hope of a White House run back when he might have had a shot. By 1980, when he did run, it quickly became clear, says Kennedy aide Gerard Doherty, the campaign was going nowhere.
Mr. DOHERTY: It was just terrible. It was like being in a washing machine with no water. I mean it was - just everything went wrong.
SMITH: But the end of Kennedy's presidential possibilities was also what liberated him. As the senator put it, the pursuit of the presidency is not my life, public service is. Conceding defeat in 1980, Kennedy hardly sounded like a candidate defeated.
Sen. KENNEDY: For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endorsed, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
(Soundbite of cheering)
SMITH: Kennedy had always been a champion for those less fortunate, using his thundering baritone to give voice to those who needed it most - children, minorities, immigrants, the poor and disabled - even reaching out personally to anyone who needed a hand.
Ms. CINDY MCGINTY(ph): Very shortly after 9/11, my phone rang and a big booming voice said, This is Ted Kennedy from Washington, D.C. and…
SMITH: Cindy McGinty, who lost her husband on September 11th, says that was the beginning of a long-term relationship.
Ms. MCGINTY: At one point, one of his staff called and said, what are you doing on Saturday? The senator would like to take you sailing. And this was a couple of years later, when most people had forgotten about us, you know. Sorry, I get a little choked up. He has never left our side.
SMITH: It was an ethic drilled into him by his parents, that he had an obligation to give back. Kennedy had been raised in extraordinary privilege.
Mr. DOHERTY: He really didn't have to do anything. You know, why'd he get up at 7:00 in the morning…
SMITH: Again, Gerard Doherty.
Mr. DOHERTY: You know, it sounds hokey, but he had this thing that so much was given to him and he was concerned with trying to give something back.
SMITH: Over the years, Kennedy would grow into the role of family patriarch.
(Soundbite of choir)
SMITH: He was deeply pained by the death of JFK, his brother Bobby, and years later JFK, Jr. We dared to think, he said, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years. Later, Kennedy would say it was a gift he had been given.
Six months after his brain tumor was diagnosed, Kennedy talked about passing the torch. And while many were calling the election of Barack Obama the culmination of a long struggle, Kennedy saw it as a giant step on a continuing course toward justice.
Sen. KENNEDY: No, there is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage. We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make.
SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
MONTAGNE: Now let's hear the sound of one revealing moment of Ted Kennedy's long life on the U.S. Senate floor.
Sen. KENNEDY: I'd like to, if I could ask my friend and colleague from Utah some questions, if he'd be good enough to answer.
INSKEEP: This is the sound of a debate over a bill in 2001. Edward Kennedy drilled in on some legislative language drafted by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
Sen. KENNEDY: Can you explain why you favor corporations in your language to the disadvantage of unions? Why do we have such a disparity in this?
Sen. HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, we're talking about the use of…
Sen. KENNEDY: You look at this language and…
Sen. HATCH: …I have…
Sen. KENNEDY: Tell me if I'm wrong on this, because I think it's very important. You're representing that this is even-handed. This is not even-handed.
INSKEEP: Senator Hatch responded in the classic style of the U.S. Senate, where the dialogue is supposed to be polite, so you attack your opponent by praising him.
Sen. HATCH: But that doesn't stop bombastic arguments, nor should it. I love them myself. I love to see the distinguished senator from Massachusetts get up there and everybody's almost positive he's going to blow a fuse before he's through. He has a right to do that, and I admire him for doing it. I admire the way he supports his special interests. And I love my colleague, as very few in this body do…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: And this is the key moment. For all the rhetoric, Kennedy worked with his colleagues, including Hatch, to pass legislation.
INSKEEP: At the end of that exchange, Senator Edward Kennedy walked up to Senator Hatch and hugged him.
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hide captionSen. Edward Kennedy listens during the closing session of the White House's forum on health care in March.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Sen. Edward Kennedy listens during the closing session of the White House's forum on health care in March.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — the scion of an American political dynasty who became an iconic liberal legislator — died Tuesday night of complications related to a cancerous brain tumor. The 77-year-old Democratic lawmaker was surrounded by family members at his home in the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod.
He will lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston beginning Thursday. President Obama will give the eulogy at his funeral Saturday in Boston, and then the senator's body will be flown to Washington for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Kennedy's malignant brain tumor was diagnosed in May 2008, after a seizure struck him while at home on the Cape. He underwent a lengthy surgery in June 2008. Aided by cancer treatments, he returned to his work in the Senate late in 2008, pushing for an overhaul of the nation's health care system and promoting legislation giving the FDA regulatory powers over tobacco products.
"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," said a statement released by the Kennedy family early Wednesday. "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."
President Obama said that he and his wife were "heartbroken" by the news of Kennedy's death. "I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of events, he always had time for a new colleague," the president said in a statement issued on Martha's Vineyard, where the Obama family is vacationing. "I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the presidency. And even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I've profited as president from his encouragement and wisdom."
Obama said "an important chapter in our history has come to an end," noting that Kennedy had played an important role in "virtually every major piece of legislation" for decades.
Kennedy had hoped to be at the center of this year's debate over a landmark bill remaking the American health care system. Even after suffering a seizure on Inauguration Day, he again returned to work. He took part in early legislative skirmishes on behalf of the new president — whose nomination for the White House he had given a boost with an early endorsement. But as his illness advanced, Kennedy was unable to take the gavel when the Senate committee he chaired took up the bill in June.
Universally known as Teddy, Kennedy had served in the Senate since 1962, making him the third-longest-serving senator in history.
In nearly a half-century in office, Kennedy was known as a champion of liberal causes and a defender of the Senate's traditions. While he served briefly as the Senate's majority whip (the second-most-powerful position) in his first full term, Kennedy lost that job to Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia in 1971. He did not return to the formal leadership thereafter.
Orrin Hatch's Song About Kennedy
Hatch composed lyrics for 'Headed Home' after Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer. The song is performed by Tony Middleton.
Instead, Kennedy made his mark with legislative work, earning a reputation as a formidable negotiator as well as a fierce floor fighter. His committee assignments included Labor and Human Resources, Judiciary, and Armed Services. He was chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the 1970s and later shifted to the gavel he held this year on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Over the years, he saw the agenda of the Senate change from the civil rights debates of 1964 to the war in Vietnam to Watergate to the struggles against Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican President Ronald Reagan. As a member and later chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he participated in the confirmation proceedings for every member of the current Supreme Court except Justice Sonia Sotomayor, from Justice John Paul Stevens in 1975 to Justice Samuel Alito in 2006. (He left the committee at the end of 2008 and did not participate in the hearings on Sotomayor's nomination.)
Kennedy had been seen as an inevitable presidential candidate almost from the time he was old enough to run, following in the footsteps of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, and their brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated while running for president in 1968.
But an early grab for the brass ring, expected in 1972, was scuttled after Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., in July 1969. The young woman who was with him, an aide named Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Though charged with leaving the scene of the accident, his two-month sentence was suspended and he was not punished further. But Kennedy never entirely escaped the incident's shadow.
When he did run for president in 1980, it was as an intraparty challenger to Carter, the incumbent. Kennedy saw Carter as squandering an opportunity for progressives to guide the nation, but Democratic primary voters gave the nomination to Carter. Although Kennedy initially positioned himself for another try in 1988, he took himself out of the running early.
Attraction to the pinnacles of power had made the Kennedy family the best-known political dynasty of its era.
Its patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a Wall Street financier and political power broker who served as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and then as ambassador to Great Britain. The eldest of his sons bore his name and was killed in World War II. Teddy was the fourth son — and last of nine children. He was born to the elder Kennedy and his wife, Rose, in 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt won his first term as president.
The youngest Kennedy graduated from Milton Academy in 1950 but was dismissed from Harvard the following year for having another student take a Spanish exam in his stead. He enlisted in the Army during the Korean War and was sent to Europe.
In 1953, he was readmitted to Harvard, graduating in 1956. He received his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1959 and, after working as coordinator of Western states for his brother's presidential campaign in 1960, became an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, Mass.
That job was just a holding pattern. Bay State Democrats could scarcely wait to move the president's telegenic and well-spoken brother into statewide office — specifically, the Senate seat the president had vacated. But the younger Kennedy first had to turn 30 to meet the constitutional age requirement, and the party had a family friend, Benjamin A. Smith, hold the seat as an appointee for two years. In November 1962, Kennedy was elected to finish out the two remaining years in his brother's term.
A Key Figure In The Senate
Kennedy's early years in the Senate were marked by ambition and strong commitment to his brothers' causes and the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.
He was an advocate for labor unions and a higher minimum wage. He was involved in the civil rights and voting rights debates at mid-decade, and he pressed for an expanded role for the government in health care. He supported the creation of Medicare in 1965 and of a national system of neighborhood health care centers as part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1966.
In the 1970s, Kennedy continued to press a national approach to health care and health insurance, negotiating with Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter but never reaching the agreement he wanted on systemic change.
Although he came up short as a presidential candidate in 1980, Kennedy redirected his energies and became a legend in the Senate. He immersed himself more than ever in health care and labor issues. Among the legislation he helped to pass were the Family and Medical Leave Act, the WIC nutrition program, job training programs and AmeriCorps.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Kennedy defended abortion rights and helped lead the effort that denied confirmation to President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. Schools were also a Kennedy focus, and in 2001 he worked with newly elected Republican President George W. Bush to pass the "No Child Left Behind" education program, helping win substantial increases in federal education spending.
But the two soon parted ways. Kennedy was an early and outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, voting against the 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion and calling it George Bush's Vietnam. He also opposed Bush's tax cuts — as well as Bush's Supreme Court nominees, Alito and John Roberts.
Yet as partisan as he could be, Kennedy also was known for the partnerships and friendships he forged with Senate Republicans. Utah's Orrin Hatch, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike Enzi of Wyoming all worked closely with Kennedy on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Kennedy was also known to work easily with the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The immigration bill that Kennedy and McCain co-sponsored in 2007 had the support of President Bush, but it could not overcome objections from Senate Republicans.
Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Kennedy evoked some of the battles he had voted on in that chamber in earlier decades.
"It was in this chamber a number of years ago that we knocked down the great walls of discrimination on the basis of race, that we knocked down the walls of discrimination on the basis of religion," he said. "Here in this Senate, we were part of the march for progress, and today we are called on again."
Leader Among Democrats
While Kennedy made just one run for the presidency, he was an influential voice in national party politics for decades. In 2004, he campaigned extensively for fellow Massachusetts Democrat Sen. John Kerry's bid for the party's nomination and helped steer the Democratic National Convention to Boston.
In 2008, Kennedy made a timely and somewhat surprising endorsement of one of his Senate colleagues, Barack Obama, over another, Hillary Clinton. Having Kennedy in his corner helped candidate Obama cement his hold on the party's liberal bloc and paved the way to his nomination.
Kennedy Memorial Service
Hear full audio of the service for Kennedy held at the JFK library in Boston.
Kennedy had three children with his first wife, Joan; the couple divorced in 1982. He also had two stepchildren with his second wife, Victoria Reggie, a Washington attorney he married in 1992. His son Patrick J. Kennedy represents the 1st Congressional District of Rhode Island.
Kennedy was passionate about his beliefs, a tireless worker for his causes, and he loved fighting the good fight.
In 1980, having failed in his challenge to Carter, Kennedy addressed the Democratic National Convention. He was talking about his campaign, but his words are an apt summation of his life:
"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."