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Sen. Ted Kennedy, Last Surviving Kennedy Son, Dies


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

This morning, we're remembering the life of Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family announced his death overnight. When he was elected to the Senate in 1962, he was following in the path of his brother, who'd just been elected president. In 2008, Senator Kennedy offered a key endorsement to a candidate for president, Barack Obama.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): With Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again, and the dream lives on.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

INSKEEP: During Senator Kennedy's long career, his own bid for the White House was derailed, but he found a different calling. One of his biographers says Kennedy authored so much legislation over so many years, that he affected the country more than either of his famous brothers.

MONTAGNE: Today, the leader of Senate Democrats, Harry Reid, said the Senate has, quote, "lost our patriarch."

INSKEEP: Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said: Today, I lost a treasured friend. He described Kennedy as a great elder statesman who lived and breathed the United States Senate.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports on Edward Kennedy's political life.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Senator Edward Kennedy was the last surviving son of Joseph and Rose, the patriarch and matriarch of the storied Kennedy clan. His eldest brother, Joe, died in a high-risk bombing mission in World War II. His brothers John and Robert were killed by assassin's bullets. Edward, known by pretty much everyone as Ted, had an early brush with death of his own, surviving a 1964 plane crash that broke his back and left him with a limp. Ted Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962 to fill out his brother John's term. The seat had been held two years by a family friend until the youngest Kennedy reached the constitutional age of 30 to run on his own. His status in the family dynasty won him quick attention in Washington, including an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Press")

Unidentified Man: If I'm not mistaken, your brother, the president of the United States, has taken a contrary view that federal aid to parochial schools is unconstitutional. I wonder if you'd discuss that for a moment.

Sen. KENNEDY: Well, I'm delighted to express my opinion, Mr. Klorman(ph).

Unidentified Man: Is it fair to say, then, that you are in disagreement with the president?

Sen. KENNEDY: No, you have to make that assertion. I'm delighted to answer in any way that I possibly can any question which you might direct on my position on aid education.

NAYLOR: The '60s were a time of deep tragedy for Ted Kennedy - the assassination of John in 1963 and Robert in 1968. Ted Kennedy eulogized Bobby at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Sen. KENNEDY: 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.

NAYLOR: An effort to draft the youngest Kennedy for the White House was short lived at the Democratic convention of 1968, and his presidential aspirations were dealt a blow a year later when in July of 1969, his car went off a small bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick. Kennedy swam to safety, leaving behind the young woman who was a passenger in his car. The woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker, drowned. Kennedy later called his actions indefensible. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, but his sentence was suspended and he remained popular in Massachusetts, where he was reelected to the Senate the next year.

In 1980, Kennedy finally did run for president, challenging the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. It was a difficult time for the nation. Gas prices, unemployment and interest rates were all high, and Americans were being held hostage in Iran. But Kennedy had trouble articulating his reasons for running, famously stumbling in an interview with broadcaster Roger Mudd.

(Soundbite of television newscast)

Mr. ROGER MUDD (Correspondent, CBS News): Why do you want to be president?

Sen. KENNEDY: Well, I'm - were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country that it is -has more natural resources than any nation of the world. It has the greatest educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for innovation in the world and the greatest political system in the world.

NAYLOR: But while he came up short as a presidential candidate, Ted Kennedy became an icon in the Senate. He served 46 years, longer than anyone in history but Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond. He was the chamber's leading liberal voice and immersed himself particularly in health care and labor issues. Among the legislation he helped pass were the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program, job training programs and AmeriCorps. Earlier, he chaired the Judiciary Committee, where he defended abortion rights and helped lead the opposition to President Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

Later, in a 2005 NPR interview, he railed against attempts by Congressional Republicans to amend the Constitution.

Sen. KENNEDY: We're going to do a constitutional amendment on flag burning. Flag burning? That's a problem for working families that are concerned about gas prices, that are concerned about the prescription drug program, that are concerned about the cost of tuition as they're looking for their kids going to college, concerned about their jobs, concerned about the collapse of our pension system - flag burning.

NAYLOR: In 2001, Kennedy worked with President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind education bill, but he and the president soon parted ways. Kennedy was an early opponent of the war of Iraq, voting against the 2002 resolution authorizing U.S. troops and calling it George Bush's Vietnam. He also opposed Mr. Bush's tax cuts and his Supreme Court nominees: John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Yet, as partisan as he could be, Kennedy was also known for his partnerships and friendships he forged with Senate Republicans: Utah's Orrin Hatch, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and John McCain of Arizona. The immigration bill Kennedy and McCain co-sponsored failed in 2007, despite another Kennedy trademark: his thunderous oratory on the Senate floor.

Sen. KENNEDY: It was in this chamber a number of years ago that we knocked down the great walls of discrimination on the basis of race, that we knocked down the walls of discrimination on the basis of religion. Here in the Senate, we were part of the march for progress, and today we are called on again.

NAYLOR: While Kennedy made just one run for the presidency himself, he was an influential voice in national party politics. In 2004, he campaigned extensively for a fellow Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry's bid for the party's nomination and helped steered the Democratic Convention to Boston. In 2008, he made a key and somewhat surprising endorsement of then candidate Barack Obama.

Sen. KENNEDY: I'll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our country's best days are still to come.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Sen. KENNEDY: I've found that candidate, and I think you have, too.

(Soundbite of cheers)

NAYLOR: In the 1960s, Hubert Humphrey was dubbed the Happy Warrior for his exuberant campaigning, but the nickname would have fit Ted Kennedy, as well. He was passionate about his beliefs, a tireless worker for his causes, and he loved fighting the good fight.

In 1980, after Jimmy Carter was re-nominated for president, Kennedy addressed the Democratic Convention. He was talking about his campaign, but his words are an apt summation of his life.

Sen. KENNEDY: For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

(Soundbite of cheers)

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. 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.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.