J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — In the quiet of a Capitol elevator, one of Edward M. Kennedy's fellow lawmakers asked whether he had plans for a family Thanksgiving away from the nation's capital. No, the Massachusetts senator said with a shake of his head, and mentioned something about visiting his brothers' gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery.
In his half-century in the public glare, Kennedy was, above all, heir to a legacy — as well as a hero to liberals, a foil to conservatives, a legislator with few peers.
Alone of the Kennedy men of his generation, he lived to comb gray hair, as the Irish poet had it. It was a blessing and a curse, as he surely knew, and assured that his defeats and human foibles as well as many triumphs played out in public at greater length than his brothers ever experienced.
He was the only Kennedy brother to run for the White House and lose. His brother John was president when he was assassinated in 1963 a few days before Thanksgiving; Robert fell to a gunman in mid-campaign five years later. An older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed piloting a plane in World War II.
Runner-up in a two-man race for the Democratic nomination in 1980, this Kennedy closed out his failed candidacy with a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many in a packed Madison Square Garden.
"For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end," he said. "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."
He was 48, older than any of his brothers at the time of their deaths. He lived nearly three more decades, before succumbing to a brain tumor late Tuesday at age 77.
That convention speech was a political summons, for sure. But to what?
Kennedy made plans to run for president again in 1984 before deciding against it. By 1988, his moment had passed and he knew it.
He turned his public energies toward his congressional career, now judged one of the most accomplished in the history of the Senate.
"I'm a Senate man and a leader of the institution," he said more than a year ago in an Associated Press interview. He left his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to pass Congress over a span of decades. Health care, immigration, civil rights, education and more. Republicans and Democrats alike lamented his absence as they struggled inconclusively in recent months with President Barack Obama's health care legislation.
He was in the front ranks of Democrats in 1987 who torpedoed one of President Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominees. "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught about evolution," he said at the time.
It was a single sentence that catalogued many of the issues he — and Democrats — devoted their careers to over the second half of the 20th century.
A postscript: More than a decade later, President Clinton nominated a former Kennedy aide, Stephen Breyer, to the high court. He was confirmed easily.
There were humiliations along the way, drinking and womanizing, coupled with the triumphs that the Kennedy image-makers were always polishing. After the 1980 presidential campaign, Camelot took another hit when he divorced. He later remarried, happily.
In later years came grumbling from fellow Democrats that his political touch had failed him, and that he was too eager to strike a deal with President George W. Bush on education and Medicare.
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