The Massachusetts Democrat, first elected in 1962, a major part of every liberal piece of legislation in the past four decades, has died at his home in Hyannisport. The last surviving brother of a storied family, Kennedy was 77.
He is the third longest-serving senator in history, following West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who still serves, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
He had been battling brain cancer for a year. His death comes as the Senate has been wrestling with one of Kennedy's life-long causes -- overhauling the nation's health-care system.
He had also played instrumental roles in education and civil rights policies.
Beloved by Democrats and respected by many Republicans -- despite his life-long liberalism -- Kennedy was not always seen with such high regard. He was called a "lightweight" early in his career, a "playboy." In 1969, a car he was driving went over a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, resulting in the death of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne.
Rejecting Democratic pleas to run for president in 1972 and 1976, he finally decided to make a bid in 1980, taking on his own Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. But Chappaquiddick never went away, and an early disatrous interview with CBS' Roger Mudd, where he could not coherently explain why he wanted to be president, hung over him.
But he gave a magnificent speech at the convention that summer at New York's Madison Square Garden, which he famously ended by saying the "dream shall never die."
In the years since, his presidential ambitions were gone and his legislative career took on a new dimension. He dedicated himself to fighting for the poor, the underprivileged, the uneducated, and for peace. His absence from the debate over improving health-care coverage, on which he spent so much of his life, was sorely felt by his allies.
He made an instrumental endorsement of Barack Obama during his 2008 battle for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton. President Obama said in a statement this morning he "cherished" that endorsement and "profited" from his "encouragement and wisdom."
Massachusetts state law calls for a special election to be held no sooner than 145 days after a Senate vacancy. It does not allow the governor to appoint a successor. That power was taken away by the Democratic state legislature in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry (D) was running for president and a Republican, Mitt Romney, was in the governorship. In recent days Kennedy tried to change the law, so that Gov. Deval Patrick (D) could make an interim appointment. Including two independents and Kennedy, Democrats held 60 votes -- just enough to beat back any Republican filibuster. With health-care heading to an uncertain future, the Democrats may desperately need that 60th vote.