It boggles the mind to imagine the decisions that were reached behind the closed doors of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s hideaway, the private office he kept near the Senate chamber.
Sitting around the table made from a ship’s rudder, and in front of portraits of his slain brothers John and Robert, Mr. Kennedy plotted strategy to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, struck key deals with conservatives to pass the No Child Left Behind law, and helped assess then-Sen. John Edwards to see if he was the right man to join the 2004 presidential ticket.
As with so much of his life, Mr. Kennedy’s hideaway was grander than other senators’: it was larger, choicer in location and more decorated with artifacts from top leaders than his colleagues’.
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Mr. Kennedy, a one-time presidential hopeful, nine-term senator and last of the major public figures from the American version of Camelot, died at age 77 of brain cancer, his family said early Wednesday. He leaves a controversial personal history, a complicated legacy of defiance and compromise, and a gaping hole in American liberalism.
“An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time,” said President Obama, who last month awarded Mr. Kennedy the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Outside of Washington Mr. Kennedy was a divisive figure, loved by liberals and hated by conservatives. But inside the Senate he was known as a gracious and gifted lawmaker, eager to work across the aisle if it meant getting major legislation passed.
He built a legislative empire unequaled in modern times, with more than 300 of his bills signed into law. He was instrumental in pushing the No Child Left Behind education reform, the Americans with Disabilities Act and a host of health care measures.
Click here to see a timeline of Mr. Kennedy’s life.
Although he lost a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Kennedy became kingmaker to other Democrats seeking the White House. He pioneered what later became Democratic mantras, ranging from universal health insurance in the 1970s to opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.
“Because of Ted Kennedy, more young children could afford to become healthy. More young adults could afford to become students. More of our oldest citizens and our poorest citizens could get the care they need to live longer, fuller lives. More minorities, women and immigrants could realize the rights our founding documents promised them,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Mr. Kennedy was the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. Among his siblings were John F. Kennedy, whose presidency gave rise to the label of Camelot that has stuck to the family ever since, and Robert F. Kennedy, a former senator, attorney general and presidential candidate. Both men were assassinated in the 1960s.
Mr. Kennedy is survived by his wife, Vicki; three children, including Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island; one sister, Jean Kennedy Smith; and dozens of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
In the most notorious chapter of his life, Sen. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after a July 18, 1969, incident in Chappaquiddick, Mass., when he swerved off the Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond. He swam away from the wreck but left 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a passenger in his car, to drown.
Mr. Kennedy also admitted to being a drinker, and before he wed Vicki, his second wife, his exploits during and after his first marriage were regular fodder for gossip pages.
His ups and downs would lead the Boston Globe’s political team, which completed a biography of him earlier this year, to describe his life as a fall and rise.
There were some constants in his life, among them his family and his Irish-Catholic heritage.
He received his First Holy Communion from Pope Pius XII at the Vatican and in July, when President Obama had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, the president gave the pope a private letter from Mr. Kennedy. Mr.
Kennedy also prompted countless debates within the Catholic community for taking communion as a pro-choice politician.
As for family, it was both a source of respite and a reminder he was always in the public eye.
His sailing trips off Cape Cod or time spent at the family’s Palm Beach, Fla., compound were favorite relaxations, but could prove to be sources of trouble as well, as in 1991, when his nephew William Kennedy Smith was tried and acquitted of rape charges stemming from an evening at the Palm Beach compound.
Mr. Kennedy was diagnosed in May 2008 with brain cancer, and he began an aggressive regimen of surgery, then weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
Two months after Mr. Kennedy’s diagnosis, conservative commentator Robert Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor and Mr. Kennedy and his wife surprised the columnist and frequent political opponent by offering well-wishes, and even encouraged Mr. Novak to undergo the same aggressive treatment.
I have had few good things to say about Ted Kennedy since I first met him at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, but he and his wife have treated me like a close friend, Mr. Novak wrote. Mr. Novak died Aug. 18.
Sen. Kennedy was a kingmaker among Democrats. He helped push Mr. Kerry, his junior seat-mate from Massachusetts, over the line for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, and his endorsement was of immeasurable help to Mr. Obama to overcome Hillary Rodham Clinton and win the Democrats’ nomination last year.
At last year’s presidential nominating convention, Mr. Kennedy made an appearance and declared that the torch his brother took up at his 1961 inauguration had been passed to Mr. Obama.
The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on, Mr. Kennedy proclaimed, before being played offstage to the tune Still the One.
But the ailing senator was not able to help much in that new work. On inauguration day, Mr. Kennedy collapsed and had to be taken out of the special celebration luncheon with Mr. Obama and members of Congress, and he returned only sporadically to the Senate since then.
Recognizing his difficulties, Senate officials loaned him use of a room closer to the Senate floor to replace the storied hideaway that had been so important as a symbol of his power since the 1980s.
In that room he had entertained junior senators, hosted sessions with reporters and hammered out the tricky details of legislation with other committee chairmen and administration officials. It was reportedly the spot where Mr. Kennedy made an overture to Sen. John McCain in 2001 to switch parties.
In 2006, when C-Span did a three-part series on the history of the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Kennedy gave the cameras a brief look at his hideaway, and pointed out the fireplace, which is connected to the Republican Senate leader’s office a floor below, and in which, he said, the British troops lit their torches to burn Washington in 1814.
For decades, up-and-coming liberal hot-shots knew that being in Mr. Kennedy’s employ was the way to make a name in Washington. And his ex-staffers now populate a giant part of the Washington establishment, from congressional offices to think-tanks to the administration.
His 15,236 votes on the Senate floor stand as the fourth highest total in the chamber’s history. His first vote in 1963 was a procedural measure to see if a quorum was present on the chamber’s opening day, and his final vote came on April 27, to help advance a bill to crack down on mortgage fraud.
He secured spots on all of the key committees for advancing his agenda, including Judiciary, Labor and Public Welfare, which became the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Armed Services. He would serve as chairman of the first two committees.
His oratorical skills were substantial, and were matched by the emotion he put into delivering his floor speeches. Often times, minutes into his speeches, he would come to a subject that angered him, and his face would redden, his voice would raise and he would thunder about the injustice of blocking aid for this or that group.
Along the way Mr. Kennedy sponsored about 2,500 bills and more than 300 of those became law, his office says. And not all of his major accomplishments bore his name. Senators said he was gracious with sharing credit.
He also played a major role in the Northern Ireland peace process. He was seen as a supporter of the Catholic side, but that only went so far. In 2005 he caused a stir when he refused to meet with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army’s political arm, and instead met with the family and fiancee of a man fatally stabbed after a bar fight with IRA operatives.
He was given an honorary knighthood by Britain earlier this year.
Still, his biggest unfinished fight was for universal health care. As an early proponent of a government-run system, Mr. Kennedy battled to a stalemate President Nixon, who wanted employer-based coverage.
Mr. Kennedy, who later in life became a master of winning incremental victories toward his larger goals, would eventually wonder if he shouldn’t have taken Mr. Nixon’s compromise at the time.