Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a son of one of the most storied families in American politics, a man who knew triumph and tragedy in near-equal measure and who will be remembered as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate, died Tuesday night. He was 77.
The death was announced Wednesday morning in a statement by the Kennedy family.
"Edward M. Kennedy — the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply — died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port," the statement said. "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. 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. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it's hard to imagine any of them without him."
Kennedy had been in precarious health since he suffered a seizure in May 2008 at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. His doctors determined the cause had been a malignant glioma, a brain tumor that often carries a grim prognosis. The next month he underwent brain surgery at the Duke University Medical Center, where doctors declared the procedure successful without specifying what that meant for Kennedy's future.
As he underwent treatment for his cancer, Kennedy was little seen in Washington, appearing most recently at the White House in April as President Barack Obama signed a national service bill that bears the Kennedy name. While he had been physically absent from the capital, his presence had been deeply felt as Congress weighed the most sweeping revisions to America's health-care system in decades, an effort Kennedy called "the cause of my life."
On July 15, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which Kennedy chaired, passed health-care legislation that he had helped write and that may one day be regarded as the capstone to Kennedy's government career.
Kennedy was the last surviving brother of a generation of Kennedys that dominated American politics in the 1960s and that came to embody glamour, political idealism and untimely death. The Kennedy mystique — some call it the Kennedy myth — has held the imagination of the world for decades and came to rest on the sometimes too-narrow shoulders of the brother known as Teddy.
Kennedy, who served 46 years as the most well-known Democrat in the Senate, longer than all but two other senators, was the only one of those brothers to die after reaching old age. Two of them, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were felled by assassins' bullets in their 40s. The eldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., died in 1944 at the age of 29 while on a risky World War II bombing mission.
Kennedy spent much of last year in treatment and recuperation, broken by occasional public appearances and a dramatic return to the Capitol last summer to cast a decisive vote on a Medicare bill.
He then electrified the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August with an unscheduled appearance and a speech that had delegates on their feet. Many were in tears.
Kennedy was at or near the center of much of American history in the latter part of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. For much of his adult life, he veered from victory to catastrophe, winning every Senate election he entered but failing in his only try for the presidency; living through the sudden deaths of his brothers and three of his nephews; bearing responsibility for the drowning death on Chappaquiddick Island of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to his brother Robert.
Kennedy himself was almost killed in 1964 in a plane crash, which left him with permanent back and neck problems.
He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., one of the institution's most devoted students, said of his longtime colleague, "Ted Kennedy would have been a leader, an outstanding senator, at any period in the nation's history."
Byrd is one of only two senators to have served longer in the chamber than Kennedy; the other was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. In May 2008, on learning of Kennedy's diagnosis of a lethal brain tumor, Byrd wept openly on the floor of the Senate.
Born to one of the wealthiest American families, Kennedy spoke for the downtrodden in his public life while living the heedless private life of a playboy and a rake for many of his years. Dismissed early in his career as a lightweight and an unworthy successor to his revered brothers, he grew in stature over time by sheer longevity and by hewing to liberal principles while often crossing the partisan aisle to enact legislation. A man of unbridled appetites at times, he nevertheless brought a discipline to his public work that resulted in an impressive catalogue of legislative achievement across a broad landscape of social policy.
Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor. He was serving as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at his death. But he was more than a legislator. He was a living legend whose presence ensured a crowd and whose hovering figure haunted many a president.
Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fundraising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education law pushed by Bush in 2001. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Kennedy struggled for much of his life with his weight, with alcohol and with persistent tales of womanizing. In an Easter break episode in 1991 in Palm Beach, Fla., he went out drinking with his son Patrick and a nephew, William Kennedy Smith, on the night that Smith was alleged to have raped a woman. Smith was prosecuted in a lurid trial that fall but was ultimately acquitted of the charges.
Kennedy's personal life stabilized in 1992 with his marriage to Victoria Ann Reggie, a Washington lawyer. His first marriage, to Joan Bennett Kennedy, ended in divorce in 1982 after 24 years.
Born Feb. 22, 1932, in Brookline, Mass., just outside Boston, Edward Moore Kennedy grew up in a family of shrewd politicians. Both his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, and his mother, the former Rose Fitzgerald, came from prominent Irish-Catholic families with long involvement in the hurly-burly of Democratic politics in Boston and Massachusetts. His father, who made a fortune in real estate, movies and banking, served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and then as ambassador to Great Britain.
Kennedy is survived by his wife, known as Vicki; two sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. of Branford, Conn., and U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island; a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen, of Bethesda, Md.; two stepchildren, Curran Raclin and Caroline Raclin, and four grandchildren. His former wife, Joan Kennedy, continues to live in Boston.
Kennedy is also survived by one sister, Jean Kennedy Smith. His sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died earlier this month and sister Patricia Lawford Kennedy died in 2006.
"He was a quintessential Kennedy, in the sense that he had all the warts as well as all the charisma and a lot of the strengths," said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. "If his father, Joe, had surveyed, from an early age up to the time of his death, all of his children, his sons in particular, and asked to rank them on talents, effectiveness, likelihood to have an impact on the world, Ted would have been a very poor fourth. Joe, John, Bobby .... Ted.
"He was the survivor," Ornstein continued. "He was not a shining star that burned brightly and faded away. He had a long, steady glow. When you survey the impact of the Kennedys on American life and politics and policy, he will end up by far being the most significant."