One of the country’s most revered and longest-serving legislators, Senator Edward Kennedy, died on Tuesday at age 77 after a long battle with brain cancer. The leader of the most iconic political clan in the country’s modern history, Kennedy served as the Democratic senator from Massachusetts for 46 years and was the only one of his brothers to reach old age in a family famously haunted by tragedy.
“Edward M. Kennedy — the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply — died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port,” the Kennedy family said in a statement released early Wednesday morning (August 26). “We’ve lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever. We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them without him.”
Kennedy announced in May 2008 that he was suffering from a malignant brain tumor, diagnosed days after he suffered a seizure at the family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. After giving a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August that electrified the room, Kennedy fell ill at January’s inauguration of President Barack Obama — whom he endorsed in the election — and was briefly hospitalized after suffering a seizure.
Despite his ailments, almost until his death, Kennedy continued to advocate for the legislative priority that had become his Senate calling card: health-care legislation. In July, Kennedy wrote an impassioned cover story for Newsweek magazine about universal health care, which he called “the cause of my life.”
Edward Moore Kennedy was the youngest son of one of America’s wealthiest families, born on February 22, 1932, in Brookline, Massachusetts, to Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy, a real estate and banking mogul who served as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later as ambassador to Britain.
In a home where politics was an obsession, Joseph and Rose instilled in their nine children the passion for leading a public life. Joseph Jr., the eldest, had been groomed for the White House, but he died in 1944 in World War II. John F. Kennedy made it to the presidency but was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1963. Five years later, the same fate befell third brother Robert Kennedy during his White House run. It was Ted — whom the New York Times said was dismissed early in his career as a lightweight unworthy of the legacy of his revered brothers — who ultimately left the longest mark on the political map, striving for more than four decades to pass legislation on civil rights, the environment, education, voting rights and health care.
After graduating from Harvard and the University of Virginia School of Law, Edward Kennedy was elected to his brother John’s vacated U.S. Senate seat in 1962 and then re-elected in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994 and 2000, earning him the title of the second-longest serving member of the Senate. As a result of his tenacity, the honor accorded him by his seniority and family history, as well as a track record of reaching across the aisle to work with his Republican colleagues on major legislation, Kennedy became one of the most revered politicians of the modern age, one the Times described as “a living legend whose presence ensured a crowd and whose hovering figure haunted many a president.”
Kennedy’s life was also shot through with personal tragedies and missteps that nearly derailed his historic legislative record. In 1964, he was seriously injured in a plane crash that killed the pilot and another passenger. In 1969, he drove a car off a bridge near Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, escaping the vehicle, but leaving behind a campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned. The incident put an end to Kennedy’s hopes of running for president in that election cycle, though he did run in 1980, losing the nomination to then-incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
In addition to serving as the surrogate father to his late brothers’ 13 children, Kennedy had three children with his first wife, Virginia Joan Bennett, and two step-children from his marriage to Victoria Anne Reggie in 1992.
Following the deaths of John and Robert, Edward became the family patriarch, as close as the country came to royalty, and the final tie to the political dynasty known as “Camelot.”
“An important chapter in our history has come to an end,” President Obama said in a statement released early Wednesday. “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.”