Kennedy sketched a dream of a better future as he laid Robert to rest in 1968: "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."
After John Jr.'s death, the senator said: "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years."
His own legacy was blighted on the night of July 18, 1969, when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha's Vineyard. Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old worker with RFK's campaign, was found dead in the submerged car's back seat 10 hours later.
Kennedy, then 37, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence and a year's probation. A judge eventually determined there was "probable cause to believe that Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently ... and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne."
At the height of the scandal, Kennedy went on national television to explain himself in an extraordinary 13-minute address in which he denied driving drunk and rejected rumors of "immoral conduct" with Ms. Kopechne. He said he was haunted by "irrational" thoughts immediately after the accident, and wondered "whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys." He said his failure to report the accident right away was "indefensible."
After Chappaquiddick especially, Kennedy gained a reputation as a heavy drinker and a womanizer, a tragically flawed figure haunted by the fear that he did not quite measure up to his brothers. As his weight ballooned, he was lampooned by comics and cartoonists in the 1980s and '90s as the very embodiment of government waste, bloat and decadence.
In 1991, Kennedy roused his nephew William Kennedy Smith and his son Patrick from bed to go out for drinks while staying at the family's Palm Beach, Fla., estate. Later that night, a woman Smith met at a bar accused him of raping her at the home.
Smith was acquitted, but the senator's carousing — and testimony about him wandering about the house in his shirttails and no pants — further damaged his reputation.
Kennedy offered a mea culpa in a speech at Harvard that October, recognizing "my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life."
Politically, his concession speech at the Democratic convention in 1980 turned out to be a defining moment. At 48, he seemed liberated from the towering expectations and high hopes invested in him after the death of his brothers, and he plunged into his work in the Senate. In his later years, after he had divorced and remarried, he came to be regarded as a statesman on Capitol Hill, with a growing reputation as an effective, hardworking lawmaker.
His legislative achievements included bills to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Meals on Wheels for the elderly, abortion clinic access, family leave, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
He was also a key negotiator on legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, was a driving force for peace in Ireland and a persistent critic of the war in Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: "Ted Kennedy's dream was the one for which the Founding Fathers fought and for which his brothers sought to realize. The liberal lion's mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die."
Former first Lady Nancy Reagan said that her husband and Kennedy "could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another."
Said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: "Even facing illness and death he never stopped fighting for the causes which were his life's work. I am proud to have counted him as a friend and proud that the United Kingdom recognized his service earlier this year with the award of an honorary knighthood."
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