HYANNIS PORT, Mass. — Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, last surviving brother in an American political dynasty and one of the most influential senators in history, died at his home on Cape Cod after a yearlong struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.
In nearly 50 years in the Senate, Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, served alongside 10 presidents — his brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy among them — compiling legislative achievements on health care, civil rights, education, immigration and more.
Speaking briefly to reporters at his rented vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., President Barack Obama called Kennedy one of the "most accomplished Americans" in history — and a man whose work in Congress helped give new opportunities to millions.
"Including myself," added the nation's first black president, who ordered government flags lowered to half-staff.
Kennedy, who died Tuesday night, will be buried Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery after a funeral Mass in Boston. Before that, he is to lie in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Also buried at Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington, are two Kennedy brothers, the president and former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, as well as John Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, their baby son, Patrick, who died after two days, and their stillborn child.
Edward Kennedy's only run for the White House ended in defeat in 1980, when he unsuccessfully challenged President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Democrat, who was seeking renomination. More than a quarter-century later, Kennedy handed then-Sen. Obama an endorsement at a critical point in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, explicitly likening the young contender to President Kennedy.
To the American public, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of America's most glamorous political family, father figure and, memorably, eulogist of an Irish-American clan plagued again and again by tragedy. But his career was forever marred by an accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969, when the car he was driving plunged off a bridge, killing a young woman passenger.
Kennedy's death triggered an outpouring of superlatives from Democrats and Republicans as well as foreign leaders.
Vice President Joe Biden said that in the Senate Kennedy had restored his "sense of idealism."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican from Utah who formed a political alliance with Kennedy on some health-related issues, called Kennedy "an iconic, larger-than-life" senator with outsize influence. "You couldn't help but like him, but on the other hand the fights were real and they were knockdown, drag-out battles. But that's the way it should be," Hatch told reporters in Salt Lake City. "We were like fighting brothers."
Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the longest-serving senator, said: "I had hoped and prayed that this day would never come. My heart and soul weeps at the lost of my best friend in the Senate, my beloved friend, Ted Kennedy."
Kennedy's family announced his death in a brief statement early Wednesday.
"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," it said. "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."
Two vans left the famed Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port in pre-dawn darkness. Both bore hearse license plates — with the word "hearse" blacked out.
Several hundred miles away, flags few at half-staff at the U.S. Capitol, and Obama ordered the same at the White House and all federal buildings.
Kennedy's desk in the Senate, which had also been used by his brother John, was covered Wednesday by a black shroud and a vase of white roses.
In his later years, Kennedy cut a barrel-chested profile, with a swath of white hair, a booming voice and a thick, widely imitated Boston accent. He coupled fist-pumping floor speeches with Irish charm and formidable negotiating skills. He was both a passionate liberal and a clear-eyed pragmatist, willing to reach across the political aisle.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1962, taking the seat that his brother John had occupied before winning the White House, and he served longer than all but two senators in history.
His own hopes of reaching the White House were damaged — perhaps doomed — in 1969 by the scandal that came to be known as Chappaquiddick. He sought the White House more than a decade later, lost the Democratic nomination to Carter, and bowed out with a stirring valedictory: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die."
Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
He made a surprise return to the Capitol last summer to cast a decisive vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He made sure he was there again last January to see his former Senate colleague sworn in as president but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.
He also made a forceful appearance at last summer's Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his own illness and said health care was the cause of his life. His death occurred precisely one year later.
He was away from the Senate for much of this year, leaving Republicans and Democrats to speculate about what his absence meant for the fate of Obama's health care proposals.
Under state law, Kennedy's successor will be chosen by special election. In his last known public act, the senator urged Massachusetts state legislators to give Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick the power to name an interim replacement. But that appears unlikely, even though Patrick said Wednesday in radio interviews that he would sign such a bill if it reached his desk. The vacancy leaves Democrats in Washington with one less vote for at least the next several months.
His death came less than two weeks after that of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver on Aug. 11. Kennedy was not present for the funeral, an indication of the precariousness of his own health. Of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, only one — Jean Kennedy Smith — survives.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said his father had defied the predictions of doctors by surviving more than a year with his fight against brain cancer.
The younger Kennedy said that gave family members a surprise blessing, as they were able to spend more time with the senator and to tell him how much he had meant to their lives.
Kennedy arrived in the Senate after a string of family tragedies. He was the only one of the four Kennedy brothers to die of natural causes.
Kennedy's eldest brother, Joseph, was killed in a plane crash in World War II. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles as he campaigned for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.
Years later, in 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed at 38 in the crash of the plane he was piloting. His wife died with him.
It fell to Ted Kennedy to deliver the eulogies, to comfort his brothers' widows, to mentor fatherless nieces and nephews. It was Ted Kennedy who walked JFK's daughter, Caroline, down the aisle at her wedding.
Tragedy had a way of bringing out his eloquence.
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."
Whatever his national standing, Kennedy was unbeatable in Massachusetts. He won his first election in 1962, filling out the unexpired portion of his brother's term. He won an eighth term in 2006. Kennedy served close to 47 years, longer than all but two senators in history: Byrd (50 years and counting) and the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who died after a tenure of nearly 47 1/2 years.
Born in 1932, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Edward Moore Kennedy was part of a family bristling with political ambition, beginning with maternal grandfather John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, a congressman and mayor of Boston.
Round-cheeked Teddy was thrown out of Harvard in 1951 for cheating, after arranging for a classmate to take a freshman Spanish exam for him. He eventually returned, earning his degree in 1956.
He went on to the University of Virginia Law School, and in 1962, while his brother John was president, announced plans to run for the Senate seat JFK had vacated in 1960. A family friend had held the seat in the interim because Kennedy was not yet 30, the minimum age for a senator.
Kennedy was immediately involved in a bruising primary campaign against state Attorney General Edward J. McCormack, a nephew of U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack.
"If your name was simply Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke," chided McCormack.
Kennedy won the primary by 300,000 votes and went on to overwhelmingly defeat Republican George Cabot Lodge, son of the late Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, in the general election.
Devastated by his brothers' assassinations and injured in a 1964 plane crash that left him with an injured back, Kennedy temporarily withdrew from parts of public life in 1968. But he re-emerged in 1969 to be elected majority whip of the Senate.
Then came Chappaquiddick.
Kennedy still handily won re-election in 1970, but he lost his leadership job. He remained outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War and support of social programs but ruled out a 1976 presidential bid.
In the summer of 1978, a Gallup Poll showed that Democrats preferred Kennedy over President Carter 54 percent to 32 percent. A year later, Kennedy decided to run for the White House with a campaign that accused Carter of turning his back on the Democratic agenda.
The difficult task of dislodging a sitting president was compounded by Kennedy's fumbling answer to a question posed by CBS' Roger Mudd: Why do you want to be president?
"Well, it's um, you know you have to come to grips with the different issues that, ah, we're facing," Kennedy said. "I mean, we can, we have to deal with each of the various questions of the economy, whether it's in the area of energy. ..."
comments on this story
Long afterward, he said, "Well, I learned to lose, and for a Kennedy that's hard." Kennedy married Virginia Joan Bennett, known as Joan, in 1958. They divorced in 1982. In 1992, he married Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie. His survivors include a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen; two sons, Edward Jr. and Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island; and two stepchildren, Caroline and Curran Raclin.
Edward Jr. lost a leg to bone cancer in 1973 at age 12. Kara had a cancerous tumor removed from her lung in 2003. In 1988, Patrick had a noncancerous tumor pressing on his spine removed. He has also struggled with depression and addiction and announced in June that he was re-entering rehab.
Kennedy's memoir, "True Compass," is set to be published in the fall.
Associated Press Writers Nancy Benac and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this story.