Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the “liberal lion” of the U.S. Senate and the head of America’s iconic political family, died late last night at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. He was 77.
Sen. Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2008.
“Ted Kennedy was an iconic, larger than life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah. “Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy’s name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber.”
Hatch, a conservative whose politics generally clashed with Kennedy’s, defined Kennedy as a “treasured friend,” demonstrating that one can cherish principled opponents even if the philosophical divide cannot always be bridged.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, the wife of America’s late conservative icon, said she deeply admired Sen. Kennedy.
“Given our political differences, people are sometimes surprised by how close Ronnie and I have been to the Kennedy family,” Reagan said. “But Ronnie and Ted could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another.”
Sen. Kennedy wore more pain for more people than perhaps any other American political figure. An enormously wealthy man, Kennedy was dismissed as a limousine liberal by some critics. It was shallow criticism, of course, because it implied that people of means cannot have legitimate thoughts and feelings and seek careers in public service only owing to guilt over having more money than others.
And Sen. Kennedy wore his own pain. He was the brother of an assassinated president and the brother of an assassinated presidential candidate. He lost a brother during World War II to a plane explosion and a sister in a plane crash in 1948. Kennedy also lost a nephew to drug addiction, a nephew to a ski accident and a nephew to a plane crash.
Sen. Kennedy himself nearly was killed in a plane crash in 1964.
On the subject of pain, Sen. Kennedy also caused plenty of it, including pain to himself when he was caught paying a fellow student to take a Spanish exam for him at Harvard in 1951. He got booted out and joined the Army. Harvard readmitted him two years later. Kennedy graduated in 1956 and went on to earn a law degree at the University of Virginia.
Few obituaries today will not mention Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in 1969. Kopechne drowned. The senator called aides but waited hours to call police, which led to questions about whether he was drunk behind the wheel and being unfaithful to his wife.
Kennedy said he was not drunk and not involved in immoral conduct with Kopechne. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury.
Sen. Kennedy lived his life. He was real. He never spent a day when his life was not at risk, being the “third brother.” His closest friends defined him by his heart. Sen. Kennedy showed up when people were hurting.
No one had to make the call, which is why even his philosophical opponents and tens of millions of Americans who disagreed with Sen. Kennedy on many of the important issues mourn today.