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The Lion Who Never Forgot The Little Guy04:27

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Even if Ted Kennedy had never made an impact in the Senate, he would be remembered as the tragic last Kennedy brother. His older brother Joe was killed in World War II. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, as was presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, for whom Ted delivered a stirring eulogy in 1968:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

In the shadow of his brothers, not a lot was expected of Ted Kennedy. But he carried the legacy of his brothers and his family for nearly half a century and became a defining figure of his era.

"I'd say that he's the greatest lawmaker in the 20th century," said Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer. "Ted found ways to transform ideas into laws that nobody else would have gotten done."

In 1962, Kennedy ran for the former Senate seat of his brother, John, which was being held by an old family friend until Ted Kennedy turned 30, the minimum age for a senator. That's when Steve Grossman, the former head of the Democratic National Committee and the Massachusetts Democratic Party, first met him.

"My father was working for him. I was only 16, so I used to tag along with my father," Grossman said. "That was the famous campaign, of course, where he ran against Eddie McCormack and that famous debate where Ted Kennedy essentially won the race, where Eddie McCormack belittled Ted Kennedy.

McCormack called him "Teddy" and said if his name was Edward Moore and not Edward Moore Kennedy, his candidacy would be a joke. It turned the race in Kennedy's favor and he won. Despite his pedigree, Grossman says Kennedy came into the Senate with humility.

"Remember, he was not just a 30-year-old freshmen senator arriving in the United States Senate; he was the brother of the president of the United States," Grossman said. "He was the brother of the attorney general of the United States. So the people wanted to work with him. People wanted to be his mentors, his teachers, and he recognized that he needed mentors. He recognized that he needed teachers. He recognized that he needed great policy people and colleagues. He was not so over-confident that he knew it all."

Once he got his footing, Kennedy championed his brothers' priorities, says Adam Clymer.

"The first bill that he managed in the Senate was the immigration bill that eliminated national origins quotas," Clymer said. "And that was a bill that Jack had drafted. He picked up a number of Robert's causes in terms of American Indians, for example."

In his first year in office, he also worked on bills dealing with civil rights, nuclear arms control and the growing conflict Vietnam. And he took up a cause he would vigorously pursue for the rest of his life: universal health care.

Given the status of his two fallen brothers, talk naturally turned to Ted Kennedy running for president. But a tragic and controversial event altered the course of his political career.

On a summer night in 1969, after a party in Chappaquiddick, on Martha's Vineyard, Kennedy was driving with Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to his brother, Robert, and veered off a small, unlit bridge. The car overturned in a pond. Kennedy swam to safety and said he tried to rescue Kopechne. He explained his version of events in a nationally televised address.

"I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current but succeeded only in increasing my state of utter exhaustion and alarm."

Kennedy did not report the incident to police. Ten hours later, police found his car in the pond with Kopechne inside. Kennedy said his actions were indefensible.

"My conduct and conversation during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all," he explained in the televised address.

He offered to resign from his Senate seat, if voters in Massachusetts wanted him to. But he received overwhelming support. Even so, this event, more than any other, limited his political aspirations, says biographer Adam Clymer.

"It defined his national future."

Still, 10 years later, in 1979, Kennedy was frustrated that his major priority, universal health care, was being sidelined by Democratic President Jimmy Carter. It was a long shot, but Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination.

"I'm asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice," Kennedy said in a speech.

Despite initial support from some Democrats also frustrated with the Carter administration, Kennedy's candidacy faltered. His campaign was damaged when he couldn't clearly answer a reporter's question, "Why do you want to be president?" And his actions in Chappaquiddick were replayed in the press as the "moral issue."

But Kennedy took his campaign all the way to the 1980 Democratic convention before bowing out. Some say this weakened Carter, who lost to Republican Ronald Reagan.

After the loss, Kennedy returned to the Senate, and Clymer says he blossomed in opposition to the Regan administration, sometimes in partnership with Republicans.

"He protected civil-rights laws from efforts of the Reagan administration. He protected a lot of important programs. And he worked with people like Orin Hatch in getting the federal government involved in fighting AIDS," Clymer said.

"He worked with Dole and many others in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act — probably the single most important piece of legislation he ever did."

Kennedy helped craft successful legislation under nine different presidents. "Here's a man who is able to get things done when the Democrats are in the majority in the House and Senate and hold the White House," said Peter Meade, an influential Boston leader and political ally.

"He's able to get it done when the Republicans hold the White House. He's able to get it done when the Republicans hold the House, the Senate and the White House. He just knows how to get it done."

Kennedy had a guiding hand in laws expanding workplace safety, healthcare availability, lowering the voting age to 18 and protecting civil rights. Meade attributes Kennedy's legislative success to both his work ethic and his kindness.

"When you talk to Republican senators about him, the high regard, the affection for Ted..." Meade recalled. "It's those small things — if you are walking through the Russell Senate office building and he sees a colleague, (he says) 'How's Mary?' Mary might be an eight-year-old daughter who just had her tonsils out.

"Things like, 'Make sure you're giving her ice cream! It's worth having the tonsils out for that ice cream.' It's not just section 14B of the Reauthorization Act."

Colleagues say Kennedy's ability to listen, tell good stories and surround himself with the best people were hallmarks of his style. And most everyone asked about Kennedy's success mentions his second wife, Vicki, as a key ingredient.

For many people, Kennedy's marriage to Victoria Reggie in 1992, after divorcing Joan 10 years earlier, reinvigorated him at a lull in his political career. Meade remembers them as a team.

"I said to Vicki as we were leaving the house, 'You are wonderful for him,' and like that, she said, 'He's wonderful for me.' "

However great his political accomplishments, though, Ted Kennedy recently told Boston's Fox News affiliate that his legacy is much more personal.

"I believe that my greatest achievement will be my children," Kennedy said. "I think they've all be grown up with the various challenges that young people meet but they are good, decent and caring individuals, and my step children have brought a new joy to my life."

This program aired on August 26, 2009.

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