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Edward Kennedy, The Senate’s Last Lion, Is Dead At 77

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate for 46 years and championed causes large and small, died at home in Hyannisport on Tuesday night, his family said in a statement. He was 77.

Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in May 2008 and lived months longer than doctors had predicted.

Kennedy won the seat that opened up when his brother, John F. Kennedy, became president. The senator was elected to eight full terms and was the second most senior member of the Senate.

Kennedy’s absence from Washington over the past few months had sparked concern. His top priority, “health care for all Americans,” is in what President Obama calls “a make or break period.”

Kennedy’s committee passed his version of a health reform bill in July, but it is not aligned with other versions of the bill in some key areas. Colleagues said they felt his absence daily as they worked toward a compromise.

Friends and aides say Kennedy continued working the phones, trying to help broker agreements on health reform.

In July, Newsweek magazine published an article written by Kennedy, making the case for health care reform. In it, he wrote:

For four decades I have carried this cause … from the floor of the United States Senate to every part of this country. It has never been merely a question of policy; it goes to the heart of my belief in a just society. Now the issue has more meaning for me–and more urgency–than ever before. But it’s always been deeply personal, because the importance of health care has been a recurrent lesson throughout most of my 77 years.

Kennedy had been harder to reach and engage in recent months. He continued to sail on his boat, the Mya, although he sat out a Nantucket Sound race that had been his Memorial Day pastime for years.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, speaks at the Democratic National Convention in the Staples Center in Los Angeles in August 2000. (AP)

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, speaks at the Democratic National Convention in the Staples Center in Los Angeles in August 2000. (AP)

At the time of his diagnosis, doctors said the average survival time for someone his age with an aggressive brain tumor was 15 months.

Kennedy made just a handful of public appearances on Capitol Hill after his cancer diagnosis. The Washington Post reported that he voted in just 11 of hundreds of roll calls since he fell ill. The senator cast his last vote in late April.

But Kennedy continued to work, often from his home in Hyannisport. The senator issued statements, including one on the passage of a bill he had worked on for years that would let the Food and Drug Administration regulate the tobacco industry.

Another signature Kennedy measure that would expand the federal hate crimes law is tied up on Capitol Hill. Through June, colleagues were saying the senator seemed determined to return to D.C. for the health reform debate.

Kennedy dropped most public speaking engagements after he fell ill. But he kept one particular date in Denver last August. Fighting kidney stones, the senator roused fellow Democrats at their national convention, as he confirmed his determination to pass a universal health care bill this year.

And this is the cause of my life, new hope, that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American, North, South, East, West, young and old will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.

Kennedy considered running for president several times and did challenge President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primary but lost. Political analysts say he underestimated the degree to which Americans still questioned his character and judgment in the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne. She was killed when the car she was riding in, driven by Kennedy, went off a bridge on Martha’s Vineyard in 1969.

Some Democrats blamed Kennedy for weakening the party in 1980 and contributing to Carter’s loss in the general election.

Kennedy continued in the Senate, where many observers say his work on health care, immigration, civil rights, and education made him one of the most effective senators in U.S. history and certainly in the history of Massachusetts.

Kennedy’s diagnosis in 2008 focused state leaders attention on how much they depend on Kennedy to protect the state’s interests in Washington. A special election, likely to be held early next year, would determine who Massachusetts turns to now that Kennedy is gone.

Kennedy is survived by his wife, Vicki, his former wife, Joan, his three children and his two stepchildren.

Kennedy leaves four grandchildren and 23 nieces and nephews, with many of whom he maintained close relationships. Of Kennedy’s eight siblings, Jean Kennedy Smith is the only living member of the generation that established the Kennedy dynasty.

WBUR’s Margaret Evans and Mark Navin contributed to this report.

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