Obama Calls Edward Kennedy 'Greatest United States Senator Of Our Time'

'For America, he was a defender of a dream,' the president says of the late senator.

President Barack Obama paid tribute to the late Senator Edward Kennedy on Wednesday (August 26), just hours after the long-serving "Lion of the Senate" passed away at age 77 from brain cancer. Speaking at a podium in the grass outside his rented compound on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, Obama praised Kennedy as the greatest senator of our time.

"Even though we knew this day was coming, we awaited it with no small amount of dread," Obama said, referring to the long fight Kennedy waged against the disease that doctors predicted would fell the tireless legislator well before it did. "For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was a defender of a dream."

According to The Associated Press, Obama was awakened just after 2 a.m. on Wednesday and told of Kennedy's death. He spoke to the senator's wife, Victoria, at around 2:25 a.m. to offer his condolences.

The president spoke about Kennedy as an "extraordinary leader," saying he was privileged over the last several years to call Kennedy a colleague, a counselor and a friend, praising his courageous fight against cancer.

"His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us, the blessing of time to say thank you and goodbye," Obama said, referring to Kennedy's older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and former U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, both felled at a young age by assassins' bullets.

"The outpouring of love, gratitude and fond memories to which we've all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives," Obama said. "His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives, [in] seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education's promise and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just, including myself."

In addition to their brief time together in the Senate, Obama grew close to Kennedy when the senior legislator threw his support behind the upstart presidential candidate over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton at a crucial point in last year's campaign, comparing Obama to the late President Kennedy. Edward Kennedy also traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, against his doctors' wishes, and gave a rousing speech in which he poignantly said, "The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on," paraphrasing a line from one of his most lauded speeches, an address at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Senator Edward 'Ted' Kennedy: A Life In Photos

Earlier in the day, Obama released a statement in which he said he and Michelle Obama were heartbroken to learn of Kennedy's death. "For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well-being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts," Obama said. "I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of events, he always had time for a new colleague. I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the presidency. And even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I've profited as president from his encouragement and wisdom.

"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. And the Kennedy family has lost their patriarch, a tower of strength and support through good times and bad."

Later in the morning, a clearly grief-stricken Vice President Joseph Biden paid a tear-stained farewell to his good friend, recalling the warmth and generosity of his Senate ally and confidant. He recalled how, unbidden, Kennedy called him every day for weeks following the death of Biden's wife and daughter in a horrific 1972 car crash and was by him for nearly every major event in his 40-year political life.

"He was never defeatist. He never was petty. Never was petty," Biden said, choking up. "He was never small. And in the process of his doing, he made everybody he worked with bigger; both his adversaries as well as his allies." Paraphrasing Shakespeare, Biden said, "I don't think we shall ever see his like again. ... But I think the legacy left is not just in the landmark legislation he passed, but in how he helped people look at themselves and look at one another."

Former first lady Nancy Reagan said despite their political difference, Kennedy and her late husband, President Reagan, a staunch Republican, were very close. "In recent years, Ted and I found our common ground in stem-cell research, and I considered him an ally and a dear friend. I will miss him," she said.

One of Kennedy's closest friends in the Senate, Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, mourned the loss of a "great elder statesman, a committed public servant, and leader of the Senate. And today I lost a treasured friend." Hatch called Kennedy an iconic, "larger-than-life United States senator whose influence cannot be overstated. Many have come before, and many will come after, but Ted Kennedy's name will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the United States Senate and the work completed within its chamber."

Funeral arrangements for Kennedy have not yet been announced, but according to reports, aides said that President Obama is expected to deliver a eulogy.