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The Lion sleeps tonight

Then Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., laughs with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., during a rally for Obama at American University on Jan. 28, 2008, in Washington, D.C.
Then Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., laughs with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., during a rally for Obama at American University on Jan. 28, 2008, in Washington, D.C.
Associated Press

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy lived large.

His heritage, his talents, his passions — even his girth — spoke of a man larger than life.

He was legendary.

Unfortunately, legendary foibles also were his lot. And his personal failings were usually played out — scene by scene — on the international stage.

With his passing Tuesday at the age of 77, tributes for the man known as "The Lion of the Senate" have been pouring in. And he is being lionized as perhaps the most effective lawmaker in the history of the U.S. Senate. And he played his role as a senator with the aplomb of a Shakespearean actor. He was both Falstaff and King Henry. And like one of the Bard's own creations, Kennedy lived through monumental tragedy — the death of three brothers and three nephews, a plane crash, several scandals. He also accomplished great things, putting his mark on 2,500 pieces of legislation — much of them, like Title IX, aimed at righting social injustice and correcting past wrongs.

He relished being a senator. He was good at it both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras.

But it was not the dream role of a lifetime.

He was a Kennedy, after all. And from his first steps in the public arena, he was being groomed and viewed as "the man who would be president." That dream came crashing to earth when his car veered from a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and carried Mary Jo Kopechne to her death. Kennedy tried mightily to distance himself from the event, but those few moments would haunt the rest of his public career. After a rambling, almost unintelligible explanation on national television of what happened that night, Kennedy abandoned his quest for the presidency and resigned himself to living at quarterdeck in the Senate.

To his credit, he made the most of it, growing into the role of elder statesman over the years and making an indelible mark on American policies.

For historians and biographers, sorting through the man's triumphs and tragedies, his self-inflicted wounds and his selfless dedication to his country will prove to be both a daunting and invigorating task. If John F. Kennedy established Camelot, Ted Kennedy was the last knight left at the roundtable.

With his passing, an entire era passes into history.