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Influential Sen. Ted Kennedy Dies


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Long after the lives of his brothers were cut short, Senator Edward Kennedy carried on their causes and made them his own. Kenney has died after a fight with brain cancer. He was 77 years old.

MONTAGNE: He spent the majority of his life in the United States Senate and year after year his legislation changed the country.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Only two U.S. senators have served longer than Ted Kennedy and colleagues say none has attained more influence.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): He is clearly the most powerful man never to have been president in the United States' history.

SMITH: Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank.

Rep. FRANK: I don't think anybody comes close to him without having been the president, and he's had more power than a lot of presidents.

SMITH: It's especially impressive given that Kennedy's political career was essentially dismissed before it even began. Teddy grew up in the shadow of big brothers John and Bobby and was more into football than academics. When he first ran for Senate, even JFK and some of his closest advisors opposed the idea.

Mr. GERARD DOHERTY (Attorney): They didn't think he could win.

SMITH: Boston attorney Gerard Doherty helped Kennedy on that first campaign in 1962.

Mr. DOHERTY: There were increasingly hostile articles criticizing him for having no experience. Let him run for selectman, you know. He'd get that all the time.

SMITH: But Kennedy would go on to win that Senate race handily, as he did every one since. He grew into the job by working hard and learning everything he could. When a small plane crash left him bedridden in 1964, he used the time to cram on the issues and he campaigned by video from his hospital bed.

(Soundbite of campaign video)

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Well, I'm coming along now. The doctors estimate that I'll be out of the hospital around Christmas time. I'm planning on Thanksgiving.

SMITH: That accident would leave Kennedy with a lifetime of back pain and a lifelong interest in the affordability of health care. In the hospital, Doherty says, Kennedy would grill him about his experience with tuberculosis.

Mr. DOHERTY: I remember one night we had this very almost intense conversation about how my father could afford my hospitalization, and he has said to me more than once that that's when he began to focus on the health problem.

SMITH: Four decades later, Kennedy would continue to push in between his own chemo treatments for health care reform.

Sen. KENNEDY: This is the cause of my life, that we will guarantee that every American - north, south, east, west, young, old - will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SMITH: While a passionately and ideologically committed liberal, Kennedy was also known for reaching across the aisle to partner with Republicans like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, he said, Orrin, I will help you. He said there are some things I can't do - you know, the unions, etc. - but he said, there are a lot of things I can. And you can go back in history and we've been a very active and successful team.

SMITH: For all his power, colleagues say Kennedy was atypically generous - for example, putting their names first on legislation they co-sponsored. Again, Congressman Frank.

Rep. FRANK: Nobody could have been more gracious, more inclusive in a business in which backbiting is a like major hobby. It is impressive how little of that is ever directed at him, and that's because of his personality, and he is somebody that his colleagues like when they could easily have grown to resent him. You know, there's a lot to be jealous about with the guy.

SMITH: The standard-bearer for what's been called America's royal family, Kennedy was in some ways larger than life, but at the same time he was undisputably human, his good and bad always subject to intense public scrutiny - from Chappaquiddick, when he drove his car off a bridge in 1969 and left behind the young campaign aide who drowned, to the infamous night in Palm Beach, Florida when he went out drinking with a nephew who would end up accused but then acquitted of raping a woman they met that night. But by the early '90s Kennedy had settled down, re-married, and turned a corner of sorts.

Sen. KENNEDY: …I recognize my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.

SMITH: Kennedy's personal troubles cost him politically. Chappaquiddick destroyed any hope of a White House run back when he might have had a shot. By 1980, when he did run, it quickly became clear, says Kennedy aide Gerard Doherty, the campaign was going nowhere.

Mr. DOHERTY: It was just terrible. It was like being in a washing machine with no water. I mean it was - just everything went wrong.

SMITH: But the end of Kennedy's presidential possibilities was also what liberated him. As the senator put it, the pursuit of the presidency is not my life, public service is. Conceding defeat in 1980, Kennedy hardly sounded like a candidate defeated.

Sen. KENNEDY: For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endorsed, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SMITH: Kennedy had always been a champion for those less fortunate, using his thundering baritone to give voice to those who needed it most - children, minorities, immigrants, the poor and disabled - even reaching out personally to anyone who needed a hand.

Ms. CINDY MCGINTY(ph): Very shortly after 9/11, my phone rang and a big booming voice said, This is Ted Kennedy from Washington, D.C. and…

SMITH: Cindy McGinty, who lost her husband on September 11th, says that was the beginning of a long-term relationship.

Ms. MCGINTY: At one point, one of his staff called and said, what are you doing on Saturday? The senator would like to take you sailing. And this was a couple of years later, when most people had forgotten about us, you know. Sorry, I get a little choked up. He has never left our side.

SMITH: It was an ethic drilled into him by his parents, that he had an obligation to give back. Kennedy had been raised in extraordinary privilege.

Mr. DOHERTY: He really didn't have to do anything. You know, why'd he get up at 7:00 in the morning…

SMITH: Again, Gerard Doherty.

Mr. DOHERTY: You know, it sounds hokey, but he had this thing that so much was given to him and he was concerned with trying to give something back.

SMITH: Over the years, Kennedy would grow into the role of family patriarch.

(Soundbite of choir)

SMITH: He was deeply pained by the death of JFK, his brother Bobby, and years later JFK, Jr. We dared to think, he said, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years. Later, Kennedy would say it was a gift he had been given.

Six months after his brain tumor was diagnosed, Kennedy talked about passing the torch. And while many were calling the election of Barack Obama the culmination of a long struggle, Kennedy saw it as a giant step on a continuing course toward justice.

Sen. KENNEDY: No, there is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage. We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make.

SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

MONTAGNE: Now let's hear the sound of one revealing moment of Ted Kennedy's long life on the U.S. Senate floor.

Sen. KENNEDY: I'd like to, if I could ask my friend and colleague from Utah some questions, if he'd be good enough to answer.

INSKEEP: This is the sound of a debate over a bill in 2001. Edward Kennedy drilled in on some legislative language drafted by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

Sen. KENNEDY: Can you explain why you favor corporations in your language to the disadvantage of unions? Why do we have such a disparity in this?

Sen. HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, we're talking about the use of…

Sen. KENNEDY: You look at this language and…

Sen. HATCH: …I have…

Sen. KENNEDY: Tell me if I'm wrong on this, because I think it's very important. You're representing that this is even-handed. This is not even-handed.

INSKEEP: Senator Hatch responded in the classic style of the U.S. Senate, where the dialogue is supposed to be polite, so you attack your opponent by praising him.

Sen. HATCH: But that doesn't stop bombastic arguments, nor should it. I love them myself. I love to see the distinguished senator from Massachusetts get up there and everybody's almost positive he's going to blow a fuse before he's through. He has a right to do that, and I admire him for doing it. I admire the way he supports his special interests. And I love my colleague, as very few in this body do…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And this is the key moment. For all the rhetoric, Kennedy worked with his colleagues, including Hatch, to pass legislation.

INSKEEP: At the end of that exchange, Senator Edward Kennedy walked up to Senator Hatch and hugged him.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.