Ted Kennedy never forgot a family birthday. So on Aug. 25 things seemed much as they should at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., when “Uncle Teddy” wished his great-niece Michaela Cuomo a happy 12th. Yet there were signs that Massachusetts’ senior senator was taking a turn for the worse. For one, he was a day early with his birthday wishes. And earlier that morning his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, 55, had told his close friend Sen. John Kerry, “This is the first day that he did not get out of bed.” Around 9 p.m. Rev. Patrick Tarrant was summoned to Ted and Vicki’s home. During Tarrant’s previous visits the senator had always led his Catholic clan in prayer. But on this night he left it to others as Vicki, son Ted Jr. and assorted relatives gathered around him. “He was not afraid to die,” says Father Tarrant. “He told his family he was ready.” Shortly before midnight, after a valiant 15-month battle with brain cancer, Edward Moore Kennedy slipped away at age 77.
In the days that followed, the youngest of the glamorous Kennedy brothers, who inspired the notion of an American-style Camelot, was remembered as both a political patriarch who carried forward the progressive Kennedy promise to try to address the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans and a family patriarch who watched over the massive clan much like his father, Joe, had a generation before. During a two-hour funeral mass at the working-class Catholic church in Boston where the senator prayed when his daughter Kara, 49, battled lung cancer, President Barack Obama hailed Kennedy as “a champion for those who had none, the soul of the Democratic Party and the lion of the United States Senate.” Though his achievements will be remembered, Obama said, “it is his giving heart that we will miss.”
The most poignant illustration of that tenderness was offered at the service by son Ted Jr., 47, who recalled a snowy day when he was 12 and trying to adjust to an artificial limb, having recently lost his right leg to bone cancer. Headed for the top of the family’s steep driveway to sled, he said, “I slipped and I fell on the ice. And I started to cry, and I said, ‘I can’t do this.'” Gently, his father lifted him. “There is nothing that you can’t do,” he replied. “We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.” And together, they did.
That characteristic determination helped Kennedy navigate his own formidable obstacles, many of them self-created. His turbulent life spanned youthful irresponsibility (he was, for instance, booted from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam), the assassinations of two brothers, a broken back from a private-plane crash that killed two and a grave scandal at age 37. But what followed were years of building a legacy of public service in the U.S. Senate, where his name became synonymous with legislation on health care, education, civil rights and immigration. By the end of his nearly 47-year career (only senators Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond served longer), Kennedy could at times sway hearts, minds and votes on both sides of the aisle. His return to the Senate seven weeks after his May 2008 diagnosis of a brain tumor ensured the passage of a critical Medicare bill. At the funeral, after hailing Kennedy as “the greatest legislator of our time,” Obama noted he was also “the friend and colleague who was always the first to pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I hope you feel better.'”
Born in 1932 to great wealth, Ted was the only one of the four Kennedy brothers who lived long enough to know his own grandchildren (firstborn Joseph Jr. was killed in World War II). Kennedy was just 28 when older brother Jack was elected President; maneuvering by his powerful family kept JFK’s old Senate seat available until Ted turned 30, the minimum age for a candidate. In 1962 he ran and secured the seat he would hold until his death. By that first election, he’d married Joan Bennett, daughter of a Republican New York City advertising man. By her own admission Joan had difficulty adjusting to the Kennedys’ public life, but together they had three children (Kara, Ted Jr. and Patrick, 42, who represents Rhode Island in Congress). After JFK’s assassination in 1963 and again when Robert was killed while running for President in 1968, many observers of the political scene thought the White House would one day be Ted’s. But that day never came. In July 1969, after a day of sailing and drinking, Kennedy drove off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, Mass. A young woman who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the incident, which Kennedy did not report to police for 10 hours. The incident permanently stained his reputation.
Yet it did not end his career. Kennedy campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, losing to incumbent Jimmy Carter, in part, say political analysts, because he could not articulate in a TV interview why he wanted to be President. While he relinquished his dream of the presidency, he continued in his cherished role as patriarch of the sprawling Kennedy clan. “He was there for all of us, including my cousins without a father,” says nephew Anthony Shriver, 44. “His caring and outreach has given us all a feeling of confidence in ourselves.”
Kennedy’s own life was less steady. In 1982 he and Joan split, their marriage marred by alcohol and his reported infidelities. Despite the divorce, says Joan, 73, “he always said, ‘Family first.'” This past November “I had my 49th Thanksgiving with him. We sat at the table with our three children and four grandchildren.” After Kennedy married divorced Washington, D.C., lawyer and longtime family friend Victoria Reggie in 1992, his demons seemed to subside. “He went from a guy who we partied with to a guy that had the highest level of responsibility,” says Rob Littell, a friend of John Kennedy Jr.’s. “He gave up drinking, and that was huge. It was Vicki’s love that made him comfortable in the world.”
In recent years, on the grassy areas near his Senate office, tourists would see Kennedy tossing tennis balls to his Portuguese water dogs Splash and Sunny—just a seemingly typical burly fellow in sweaty shirtsleeves, carrying dog droppings in a plastic bag. Young relatives would join Kennedy at the family compound and on the Mya, his beloved sailboat. “Even after his operation, we all played Capture the Flag, and he always made sure that the youngest were included,” says nephew Robert Kennedy Jr. “He treated the country as he treated our family.” That may well prove Ted Kennedy’s most enduring legacy: In his eyes, everybody counted.