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Edward Kennedy, Senate's Liberal Lion, Dies

Kennedy receives a standing ovation from President Obama and others as he arrives at the White House's forum on health care reform.
Chip Somodevilla
Kennedy receives a standing ovation from President Obama and others as he arrives at the White House's forum on health care reform.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — the scion of an American political dynasty who became an iconic liberal legislator — died Wednesday 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.

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.

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.

Staunch Liberal

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.

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.

A Political Dynasty

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 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."

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